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Statue by Hamo Thornycroft, R.A. 



Chapters on t)ts Htfe anD Ctmes 









' This ivill I say that I have sought to live 'worthily the while I lived, 

and after my life to leave to the men that come after me 

a remembering of me in good ivorks.' 




JKajestg tlje 




Some lights there be within the Heavenly Spheres 
Yet unrevealed, the interspace so vast : 
So through the distance of a thousand years 
Alfred's full radiance shines on us at last. 


Star of the spotless fame, from far-off skies 
Teaching this truth, too long not understood, 
That only they are worthy who are wise, 
And none are truly great that are not good. 


Of valour, virtue, letters, learning, law, 
Pattern and prince, His name will now abide, 
Long as of conscience Rulers live in awe, 
And love of country is their only pride. 


But with His name four other names attune, 
Which from oblivion guardian Song may save ; 
Lone Athelney, victorious Ethandune, 
Wantage his cradle, Winchester his grave. 



Now that we are fast approaching the one thou- 
sandth anniversary of the death of our greatest 
sovereign of the past " King Alfred," whom it 
is the laudable desire of many of Her Majesty's 
subjects and others to commemorate fittingly 
this book, which bears the king's name, and is written 
in honour of the king, and is intended to present 
what is known of the king's achievements and his 
claim on the gratitude and love of the English- 
speaking race, would hardly seem to demand a 

To some minds, however, this small book, if it 
appeared without a word of preface, might seem 
insufficiently comprehensive ; it may be well, there- 
fore, to explain shortly the motive for its produc- 
tion. The International Committee organising 
this Commemoration have considered it very 
advisable that a publication should be issued with 
a view to diffusing, as widely as possible, public 
knowledge of the king's life and work. This 
being the sole object, it became essential that the 

x King Alfred 

book should not be costly, but within the reach of 
all. Therefore it was also necessary to restrict its 
scope ; numerous subjects and possible illustrations 
of interest have been left for a full and complete 
biography of the great king. 

At the same time, it is hoped that the chapters 
which follow will enable the general reader to 
create in his own mind a figure, a mind, a history, 
worthy of the king *and equal to the occasion. 
The general introduction is, in substance, the 
address delivered in the Guildhall of Winchester 
by Sir Walter Besant at the first public meeting 
held to lay the foundation stone of this Commemo- 
ration. The names of those who have contri- 
buted chapters are a guarantee that the reader is 
in good hands ; the subjects of these chapters show 
a fairly complete division of the various lines in 
which Alfred achieved greatness. 

Whilst taking this opportunity of placing on 
record my very cordial thanks to the contributors 
for their gifts, especially to Sir Walter Besant, 
and to the Lord Bishop of Winchester for 
kindly advice, I feel that my thanks alone would 
indeed be a poor requite ; but our readers, of 
whatever station, whether high or low, by assisting 
to the best of their ability in the forthcoming 
Commemoration, which is veritably that of one 
thousand years of many of our institutions, of 
our government, and our national existence, will be 

Preface xi 

expressing gratitude and thanks more acceptable 
than words of mine can convey. 

It may seem strange to some readers that by 
chance no full account is given of Asser's anecdote 
of the scene between the king and the herdswoman 
in the Isle of Athelney, where he took refuge, but 
as the story is known to all, its omission may 
perhaps be pardoned ; it is certainly not due to 
any lack of interest in the story, which seems so 
strikingly to show that at times, maybe when the 
king was resting or sitting by the fire mending 
his bows and weapons, he would become absorbed 
in the one thought foremost in his mind that of 
the welfare of his country and people, then sorely 
harassed and oppressed by the Danes, and so 
neglected the homely duty that was present. 

I have, further, to draw the reader's attention to 
the circular at the end of the book, but it is not 
necessary for me to point out the advisability, or 
to detail the many praiseworthy reasons, for the 
erection of memorials to illustrious dead, stimulat- 
ing and encouraging as they are to succeeding 
generations, engendering patriotic sentiments, and 
recalling to us the history of the past by which 
knowledge is weighed and gained, and that from 
the lesson we learn almost unwittingly to shape 
and guide our future steps. 

In conclusion, I would express a hope that the 
following chapters will be read far and wide with 

xii King Alfred 

as much pleasure and profit as they have been by 
myself, and that through their agency, and out of 
public subscription, we may soon see rising in the 
heart of the capital of Wessex, worthy not of 
England alone, but of the English-speaking race, a 
memorial to one who may rightly be regarded as 
one of the principal founders of the English nation 
and its language, a pioneer of improvement, liberty, 
learning and education, and who, though a thousand 
years have sped, still forms a mighty beacon of all 
the highest aims and the noblest aspirations that 
may dominate the hearts of men. 

A. B. 

1st May 1899. 



INTRODUCTION, by Sir Walter Besant, F.S.A. . . i 

ALFRED AS KING, by Frederic Harrison, Hon. Fellow 

of Wadham College, Oxford . . . -39 


by the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of Bristol . 69 

ALFRED AS A WARRIOR, by Charles Oman, M.A., F.S.A., 

Fellow of All Souls, Oxford . . . .115 

ALFRED AS A GEOGRAPHER, by Sir Clements Markham, 

K.C.B., President of the Royal Geographical Society 149 

ALFRED AS A WRITER, by Rev. John Earle, Professor of 

Anglo-Saxon, Oxford. . . . 169 

Frederick Pollock, Bart., Corpus Professor of Juris- 
prudence 207 

ALFRED AND THE ARTS, by Rev. W. J. Loftie, F.S.A. . 241 
INDEX . . - 259 



N writing an Introduction to the 
chapters which follow, I shall not be 
expected to contribute any new facts 
to the life of the great king. As for 
any new facts, the time has long gone by when any- 
thing new could be discovered concerning the great 
king of whom I have to speak. The tale of Alfred 
is a twice-told tale : but it is a tale that should be 
always fresh and new, because at every point it 
concerns every successive generation of English- 
speaking people. Happily it is not the whole life 
of Alfred that we have to consider in this place : it 
is the example of that life : the things that Alfred 
invented and achieved during that short life for his 
own generation ; things which have lasted to our 
own day, and still bear fruit and golden sheaves. 
I should like to proceed at once to those achieve- 
ments, but it is absolutely necessary first that we 
should understand some of the conditions of the 
time : the troubles and the struggles : the over- 
throw and ruin with which Alfred's reign began : 

2 King Alfred 

the apparent hopelessness of the situation changed 
by the unexpected uprising of one man : and the 
rapid development of this man as Captain, Con- 
queror, Administrator, and Teacher. This done, 
we shall be in a position to receive the King as an 
example that should abide with the people still, and 
should still continue to shape the lives and inspire 
the minds of his race. 

In order to prevent long explanations, and to 
illustrate at the outset some of the conditions of 
England when Alfred was born into the world, 
I have caused a small map to be drawn. You 
will see that the island is divided up into many 
nations. There is first the Kingdom of Kent, 
founded by the Jutes, who never extended them- 
selves : then the Kingdom of Wessex or of the 
West Saxons, who by this time had absorbed the 
Kingdom of Essex or East Saxons, and of Sussex 
or South Saxons. The modern counties of Norfolk 
and Suffolk form the Kingdom of East Anglia 
founded by Angles, a people closely allied to Jutes 
and Saxons : the middle of England is Mercia, the 
Kingdom of the March or boundary the Mercians 
were also Angles. On the north is the Kingdom 
of Northumbria, also founded by Angles. The 
West of England is wholly occupied by Strath- 
clyde, Wales, and Cornwall, all kingdoms of the 
Britons or Welsh who remained still unconquered. 
In Scotland the Highlands were occupied by the 


Picts, and a part of the west was peopled by the 
Scots who crossed over from Ireland. The Angles 
therefore occupied the middle, the north, and the 
east ; they gave their own name to the whole 
country Angle-land or England : the Saxons 
occupied the south, with the exception of Kent : 
the Welsh still held nearly the whole of the west : 
but their territories were separated and cut into 
three parts. If we look backwards and forwards 
in history during these centuries we shall find the 
map of our island constantly changing. But still 
we may take this map fairly to represent the 
country as it was in the time of Alfred eight 
distinct nations in it : three of them composed of 
Angles, who were not on that account allies : one 
containing Jutes : one of Saxons : three of Welsh. 
These so-called nations shifted their borders con- 
tinually : they fought their neighbours : they split 
up and fought each other : there was no coherence 
or stability among them : some of them adopted 
Christianity and then relapsed : some of them re- 
mained pagans. 

These were the tribes or nations in the land. 

Let us next consider what manner of men it 
was over whom Alfred was called upon to rule. 
In order to get at this knowledge we must inquire 
of their religion, their laws, and their customs. As 
for their religion, before they became Christians, it 
was a fierce and cruel religion, although it was full 

4 King Alfred 

of imagination, as was to be expected of a people in 
whose minds the noblest poetry was slumbering. 
There were Gods who created and invented : Gods 
who gave life and inspired love : Gods who sent the 
thunder and the storm : Gods who brought the 
spring and the sunshine, the fruit, and the harvest. 
There were evil Gods the Gods of Death, who 
killed men : the Gods of Disease, who tortured 
men : the Gods of the Sea and the River, who 
drowned men : the Gods of Battle, who struck men 
with cowardice, and weighed down their hands so 
that they could not strike. There were humbler 
deities spirits of the stream, the woods, and the 
hills for the most part hostile to men and malig- 
nant, because in certain stages of civilisation the 
unknown forces of Nature present themselves 
as personal deities who are always hostile to man 
according to the Greek legend, for instance, he 
who met the great God Pan face to face fell down 
dead. They believed in raising spirits and in 
spectres, much as some of us do now : they believed 
in witches and in witchcraft : in magic and in charms : 
in love philtres : in divination : in lucky days. In a 
word, the Anglo-Saxon was full of the superstitions 
which belonged to his age. 

There was, however I venture to read between 
the lines one saving clause. The Anglo-Saxon 
was not only afraid of the unknown, which caused 
him to invent malignant deities, but in his mind 

Introduction 5 

the God of Creation was stronger than the God 
of Destruction. There is hope for a people while 
that belief survives. Long after he became a 
Christian the Saxon continued to retain his old 
beliefs under other names : he saw and conversed 
in imagination with the old deities whom he had 
forsaken : they spoke to him in the thunder : he 
saw their forms in the flying cloud, in the 
splendour of the sunset : he heard their whispers 
in the woods : they came to him in dreams. 
Religion, to the Anglo-Saxon, was a thing more 
real, more present, than it has ever been to any 
people except the Russian and the Jew. This is 
perhaps the most important point to be observed 
in the character of Alfred's people. They were 
profoundly influenced by their religion. In the 
eighth century, when Christianity was spread over 
the south and the middle of the country, all classes 
began to long after the religious life as they under- 
stood it. Kings and Queens there were ten Kings 
and eleven Queens Princes and Princesses, nobles 
and freemen all who could be received, crowded 
into the monasteries : they were eager for the 
life of meditation and of prayer : they made the 
cloisters rich : they filled the monastic houses with 
gold and silver plate and rich treasure. When 
the Danish invasion began, the Danes very soon 
found out that it was the monastery, and not the 
town, which they should sack : and at the same 

6 King Alfred 

time the people found out that the full monastery 
meant the shrunken army. It has been said that 
the Anglo-Saxon never changes. In this respect 
at least he has never changed. Through all the 
changes and chances of a thousand years, wherever 
he has penetrated, wherever he has settled, he has 
carried with him the same earnestness and the same 
reality of religion. 

We must also note, next to the earnestness of 
his religious belief, the freedom of his institutions. 
The liberties of our race, which have become to 
us like the very air we breathe, so that we are not 
even conscious of them, were not wrested by the 
people from reluctant kings. These liberties had 
always been with them from the prehistoric times 
when the family was the unit, and when custom 
was the only kind of law. Among their primitive 
customs were the first rude forms of their free 
institutions. From the Forests of North Germany, 
from the mouth of the Elbe, not from any king, 
came the right of free meeting : the right of free 
speech : the right of free thought : the right of 
free work. 

Next, as a people the Saxons were also fond of 
music, singing, poetry : the quicker witted Norman 
despised the Saxon as slow of understanding. 
Perhaps : but the Saxon proved himself in the 
long-run far more capable of enthusiasm, of 
loyalty, of patriotism, of sacrifice, of all those 

Introduction 7 

actions and emotions which spring from the 
imagination and produce forces united and irre- 
sistible. Remember that the whole of our litera- 
ture is Anglo-Saxon ; none of it is Norman. There 
is not one great Norman poet. No Norman 
literature was produced on this our Anglo-Saxon 

The next characteristic of this people is less 
picturesque. They were obstinate. Now obstinacy, 
if we think of it, is one of the most useful and 
valuable qualities that can be planted in the breast 
of man. It has many names : it is called by its 
friends firmness : under any name it is the tenacious 
man who wins in the long-run. 

They were essentially an outdoor people : they 
loved all manner of outdoor sports : all classes 
were hunters, hawkers, fishers, trappers : the country 
was full of creatures to hunt : there were in the 
forests wolves, bears, wild bulls, and stags : they 
loved the free air of the open hillside : and they 
hated towns. It was many years after their settle- 
ment in this country before they ceased to feel the 
old terror of the magic which, they thought, could 
be practised within the walls of a city. 

As regards the Anglo-Saxon women, it is pleasant 
to learn that the very same virtues which are now 
conspicuous in our own women of the present day 
were conspicuous in them. She was, as Thomas 
Wright says, " An attentive housewife : a tender 

8 King Alfred 

companion : the comforter and consoler of her 
husband and her family : the virtuous and noble 
matron." In all ranks, from the queen to the 
farmer's wife, we find the lady of the household 
attending to her household duties. They were 
more learned than the men : they could recite and 
sing the poetry of their native bards : they were 
skilful in playing the harp : and in embroidery and 
needlework of all kinds the work of the Anglo- 
Saxon ladies was in demand all over Western 

The Anglo-Saxon, therefore, had many virtues. 
He had also, we must confess, his faults, which 
were conspicuous as well as numerous. He was 
slothful of mind : he was always ready to sink 
back to the ancient seclusion of the village and 
the forest : he was conservative, and thought the 
old ways would last for ever : he was a great 
drinker in drinking, except among the Danes, 
he had no equal : he would drink for days 
together almost without stopping : even the priests 
did not escape the universal vice : they were 
admonished by the bishops not to say mass unless 
they were sober : his hospitality consisted chiefly 
in making the guests drunk. The Saxons, again, 
have been charged with cruelty certainly very 
terrible things were done, but we cannot expect 
a people to be before their age : it was a cruel 
age. Frenchman, Norman, Dane, Saxon : all 


alike were cruel in their punishments : but these 
things belong to the time. Let us acquit the 
people of Wessex of more than their share of the 
average cruelty. The stories told of the Danes, 
for example, are almost incredible, whether for 
the cruelty of the torture, or for the endurance of 
the victim. 

When we say that the Anglo-Saxon was a free 
man, and governed by free laws, we must not 
imagine him to be a Republican of the nineteenth 
century. Nor must we conclude that the Anglo- 
Saxon was a democrat, as we understand demo- 
cracy. He had his king over him, to begin with : 
and the king was not elected by the people from 
among themselves, as the President of a Republic ; 
he succeeded because he belonged to the Royal blood. 
He was even allowed, long after they were 
Christians, to be descended from the Gods : the 
people consented to his succession, but they did 
not elect him. As king he had very large powers, 
and these were undefined : men had not yet begun 
to question the Royal Prerogative : above all, he was 
their captain : he led the army : he fought with the 

In a word, the Anglo-Saxon of the ninth century 
was in essentials very much like his descendant 
of the present day. He was religious : he was a 
lover of order: he was a good fighting man: he was 
fond of outdoor sports and occupations : he was 

I o King Alfred 

tenacious of his freedom : he was imaginative, 
poetical, and dreamy : he was fond of music : he 
was still full of the old traditions and superstitions 
which ruled his life, long after he had become 
a Christian. This is a general summary of his 
character. In one virtue he was as yet wanting. 
We must not expect in him what we call the 
national and patriotic sentiment. The man of 
Wessex was the enemy of the man of Mercia : the 
north stood aloof from the south : there was no 
England or Britain : there was only a large island 
divided among eight nations, or ten nations, or 
five nations, according to the year of the Lord : 
some of them spoke the same tongue : all the 
Angles, Jutes, and Saxons had similar institutions : 
nevertheless they were enemies. You remember, 
two hundred years later on, how London accepted 
the rule, first, of Cnut the Dane : and, next, of 
William the Norman. Both of them were what 
we should call foreigners. There was no such 
feeling then. To the Londoner it mattered little 
whether his king was Mercian, Northumbrian, 
Saxon, Jute, Dane, or Norman. London received 
kings from all these people. There was not yet 
any feeling existing for the country as a whole. 
It was part of the work of Alfred, unseen and un- 
suspected, to make it possible to weld the different 
nations into one : to create little by little the love 
of country in place of the old loyalty to the tribe. 

Introduction 1 1 

Let us concede that Alfred fought, not for 
England, but for Wessex. In doing so, it is true, 
he fought for all England, but perhaps without 
his knowledge. In the same way David fought 
first for his own little country for Judea and 
made it possible for his successor to create one 
great country, of which Judea was the centre. 

I have lingered a long time over the character 
of the people whom Alfred was called upon to rule. 
Without this knowledge it is impossible to under- 
stand what the king did and why he did it, and 
in what respects his work is so truly remarkable 
and wonderful. Let us now pass on to the history 
itself, and first, naturally, to the invasions of the 

It was in the year 832 seventeen years before 
the birth of Alfred that the Danes first made 
their appearance on these shores. Their incur- 
sions began and continued exactly in the same 
way as those of the Saxons themselves 400 years 
before. They came over in their ships : they 
found the north seas without defence : they found 
no fleets guarding the island from the pirates, as of 
old : the people, ready to believe that things would 
go on for ever unaltered, had actually abandoned 
their ships ; had lost the art of ship- building ; 
and were no longer accustomed to the sea. The 
Danish fleet swooped down upon the coast : harried 
the country : murdered the people : sacked the 

1 2 King Alfred 

monasteries and the churches, and went away again. 
They found the coast, like the seas, defenceless : 
the monastic houses had drained the country of 
the fighting nobles : the warlike spirit of the 
people was wasting itself in petty tribal wars. The 
Danes, until the old spirit returned, were far 
more than a match for the Saxons. They appeared 
suddenly, without warning, now on the coast of 
Kent : now on that of Dorsetshire : now at the 
mouth of the Parret, in Somerset : now up the 
Thames : now at Southampton : they came in 
fleets of a hundred and fifty ships, carrying each 
sixty or seventy warriors : an army greater than 
anything that could be hastily got together against 
them : by the time that an army was collected the 
Danes had gone, leaving ruined churches : villages 
destroyed by fire : monasteries pillaged of their 
treasures : and murdered monks lying beside the 
scattered relics, which could not protect them. 
The Danes, their foray over, had gone off, bearing 
their treasures with them, to their own country. 
Next year they landed again : but on another part 
of the island. 

This yearly invasion of the Danes lasted for 
twenty years. They always made straight for the 
nearest monasteries, which they sacked : there 
were not many towns in Saxon England ; but there 
were some Canterbury, London, Southampton, 
York they attacked these, seized, plundered, and 

Introduction 1 3 

left them in ruins. For twenty years they came 
every year : sometimes we hear of a victory over 
them : but still they came again : there was never 
a victory so decisive as to keep them from return- 
ing in ever-increasing numbers. Then they began 
to stay in the country : they left off going home 
in the autumn : they established themselves in 
winter quarters, first on Sheppey Island, then on 
the Isle of Thanet : then in Norfolk. Then they 
went farther afield. In a word, they overran 
and conquered East Anglia : then the Kingdom of 
Northumbria : then that of Mercia : then the 
united Kingdoms of Wessex and Kent. It was 
at this crisis, when all the power of the Danes 
was brought to bear against Wessex and Kent, 
Alfred succeeded to the throne. His father and 
his four brothers, kings one after the other, had 
spent their lives in vainly beating back hordes 
of the Danes, who returned year after year. The 
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes the best of occa- 
sional victories, but the fact remains that every 
year the invaders became stronger and the 
defenders became weaker. The King of Mercia 
at last gave up the struggle and went to Rome, 
to adopt the religious life, leaving his wife behind. 
Alfred might have done the same thing, and it 
would not have been imputed unto him for 
cowardice, but for godliness. 

Happily for England he did not. The Danes 

14 King Alfred 

had seized Chippenham, in Wiltshire, and made 
that place their stronghold and headquarters. 
From Chippenham they sent out their light 
troops, moving rapidly here and there, devastating 
and murdering. For nine long years, growing 
every year weaker, Alfred fought them : in one 
year he fought nine battles. At the end of that 
time he found himself deserted, save for a few 
faithful followers : his country prostrate : every- 
thing in the hands of the enemy : his cause lost, 
and apparently no loop-hole or glimmer of hope 
left of recovery. No darker or more gloomy time 
ever fell upon this country. Everywhere the 
churches and the monasteries were pillaged and 
destroyed. All those bishops, priests, monks, and 
nuns who could get away had fled, carrying with 
them such of their treasures as they could convey. 
The towns were in ruins : the farms were de- 
serted : the people had lost hope and heart : they 
bowed their heads and entered into slavery : their 
religion was destroyed with the flight or the murder 
of their priests. Their arts, their learning, their 
civilisation, all that they had once possessed, 
were destroyed in those nine years' warfare : 
destroyed and gone it seemed for ever. And 
the king, with his wife and her sister, and his 
children, and the few who still remained with him, 
had taken refuge on a little hill rising out of a broad 
marsh, whither the enemy could not follow him. 

Introduction 1 5 

In the after years Alfred was fond of talking 
over this time of desolation : he would recall the 
visions that came to him, and not only to him but 
to his wife as well : they both saw visions of con- 
solation and of promise. Saint Cuthbert himself 
stood beside his bed and comforted him with pro- 
mise of victory and honour. We can very well 
believe the vision. To Alfred : to his wife : the 
aid of the Saints was a thing to be invoked and to 
be looked for. Did they not pray daily for the 
help of the Saints? And who should aid the 
Saxons in their trouble but their greatest Saint 
Cuthbert himself? In the sleep or the waking of 
night, what more natural than that Alfred should 
imagine that he saw and spoke with the Saint him- 
self? To those who drive or walk across the 
dreary level of Sedgemoor, now drained by its deep 
dykes, and dotted with its village churches, there 
rises on the right hand the low hill of Athelney. 
One can realise, looking upon this hill across the 
fiat land, which was once covered with bogs and 
quagmires, and reeds bending before the wind, how 
complete was the defeat of the king : how com- 
plete the victory of the Danes ; which should drive 
Alfred to. seek such a refuge. The Danish Con- 
quest, like the Norman Conquest two hundred 
years later, seemed an achievement accomplished. 
No further opposition : no one asked what had 
become of Alfred he had run away to Rome : 

1 6 King Alfred 

he had gone into a monastery, perhaps : every- 
where the Danes all over the country reported 
submission and the acceptance of their rule. And 
the old gods had come back again, Woden, and 
Thor, and Friga, and the rest : and again the 
fires flamed upon the high places, and the children 
were passed through them, and all the Christian 
saints had fled. 

Alfred remained inactive during the whole long 
winter. It was the rule of the old Kriegs Spiel, 
the war game of that time, that the armies 
should not go forth to fight in winter. The 
men would have refused to go out in the cold 
season. In fact, they could not. The country 
was covered with uncleared forests : the roads 
in winter were deep tracks of mud : it was 
impossible for the men to sleep on the cold, wet 
ground. The delay suited Alfred : he wanted time 
to organise a rising in force : he sent messengers 
to the Somersetshire people, among whom, in 
winter quarters, were lying few or none of the 
Danish conquerors : he bade them make ready for 
the spring : he ordered those of the thanes who 
were still left to come to him at Athelney : and 
in May, when the spring arrived, Alfred appeared 
once more as one risen from the dead : once 
more he raised the Wessex standard of the Golden 
Dragon : once more the people, taking renewed 
courage, flocked together : as he marched along 

Introduction 1 7 

they joined him, the fugitives from the woods and 
those who had been made slaves in their own farms, 
and swelled his force. 

What follows is like a dream. Or it is like 
the uprising of the French under Joan of Arc. 
There had been nine years of continuous defeat. 
The people had lost heart : they had apparently 
given in. Yet, on the reappearance of their king, 
they sprang to arms once more : they followed 
him with one consent, and on the first encounter 
with the Danes they inflicted upon them a defeat 
so crushing that they never rallied again. In one 
battle, on one field, the country was recovered. 
In a single fortnight after this battle the Danes 
were turned out of Wessex. Alfred had recovered 
the whole of his own country, and acquired in 
addition a large part of Mercia. 

It is significant to read that the Danish chief- 
tain became a Christian, and was baptized. Do 
you suppose that he weighed the arguments and 
listened to the history and the doctrines of the new 
religion ? Not at all. He perceived this logical 
pagan that King Alfred's Gods had shown their 
superiority over his own in a manner so unex- 
pected, so amazing, and so decisive, that he 
hesitated no longer. He acknowledged that 
superiority ; he was baptized, and he never after- 
wards relapsed. 

Alfred had got back his kingdom. It remained 

1 8 King A If red 

for him to recover it in a fuller and a larger sense : 
to restore its former prosperity and its ancient 

He began by recognising the separate rights of 
the Mercians. He would not call himself King of 
Mercia. He placed his son-in-law Ethelred as 
Earl of Mercia, and because London was at that 
time considered a Mercian city, Ethelred took up 
his residence there as soon as the Danes had 
gone out. The condition of London was as deso- 
late and as ruinous as that of the whole country. 
The walls were falling down : there was no trade : 
there were no ships in the river : no merchandise 
on the wharves : there were no people in the 
streets, save the Danish soldiers and the slaves 
who worked for them. Alfred restored the 
walls : rebuilt the gates : brought back trade and 
merchants : repaired the Bridge, and made London 
once more the most important city of his king- 
dom : its strongest defence : its most valuable 
possession. This was, in fact, the third founda- 
tion of London. If Alfred had failed to under- 
stand the importance of London that great 
port, happily placed, not on the coast open to 
attack, but a long way up a tidal river, in the very 
heart of the country a place easy of access from 
every part of the kingdom a port convenient for 
every kind of trade, whether from the Baltic or 
the Mediterranean the whole of the commercial 

Introduction 1 9 

history of England would have been changed, the 
island might have remained what it had -been for 
centuries before the Roman Conquest, a place 
which exported iron, tin, skins, wool, and slaves, 
and imported for the most part weapons to kill 
each other with. 

Alfred gave us London. The lesson of ten 
years' fighting taught Alfred what the Saxons 
had never before understood, the value of walled 
cities in the case of invasion. He saw he was 
the first to perceive how superior numbers may 
be rendered of no avail when they fling themselves 
against strong walls. The next Danish invaders 
found themselves stopped on their way up the 
Thames by a city fortified by a strong wall which 
the enemy could neither knock down nor climb 
over : and manned by citizens made doubly coura- 
geous by the safety and the strength of their 
ramparts. Six separate sieges were endured by 
London during the second invasion of the Danes : 
six separate times the enemy had to raise the siege 
and to go elsewhere, leaving London unconquered. 
Other walled towns were added Winchester, 
York, Exeter, and Canterbury but the first was 
London, whose fallen Roman wall, of which only 
the hard core of cement remained, Alfred rebuilt 
and faced again with stone. 

Alfred, I repeat, gave us London. This was a 
great service which he rendered to the safety of 

20 King Alfred 

the country. But there was still a greater service. 
The Saxon had quite forgotten the seamanship in 
which he had formerly known no master and no 
equal. Alfred saw that for the sake of safety 
there must be a first line of defence before the 
coast could be reached. England could only 
be invaded in ships, and by those who had the 
command of the seas. Therefore, he created a 
navy : he built ships longer, heavier, swifter than 
those of the Danes, and he sent these ships out to 
meet the Danes on what they supposed to be their 
own element. They went out : they met the 
Danes : they defeated them : and before long the 
Saxons had afloat a fleet of a hundred ships to hold 
the mastery of the Channel. The history of the 
English navy is chequered : there have been 
periods when its pretensions were low and its 
achievements humble : but since the days of Alfred 
the conviction has never been lost that the safety 
of England lies in her command of the sea. Fort- 
resses and walled cities are useful : it is a very 
great achievement to have given them to the 
country : London alone, restored by Alfred, was 
the nation's stronghold, the nation's treasure 
house, a city full of wealth, filled with valiant 
citizens, unconquered and defiant : that was a very 
great gift to the country : but it was a greater 
achievement still to have given to the country a 
fleet which was ready to meet the enemy before 

Introduction 2 1 

they had time to land, and to give them most 
excellent reasons why they should not land : to 
make the people understand that above all things, 
and before all, it was necessary for all time to keep 
the mastery of the seas. 

Remember, therefore, that Alfred, thus, gave us 
the command of the seas. 

As Rudyard Kipling, our patriot poet, says : 

We have fed our seas for a thousand years, 

And she calls us, still unfed, 
Though there's never a wave of all her waves 

But marks our English dead. 

"Never a wave of all her waves" and it was 
Alfred who first sent out the English blood to 
redden those waves in defence of hearth and home. 
Now, there can be no doubt that if he had 
advanced upon the great defeat of the Danes he 
might have recovered the whole of the country 
and become not only its overlord, as his grand- 
father Egbert had been before him, but its king. 
No doubt he was tempted : to a successful com- 
mander more successes always lie before him 
waiting to be snatched. This dream of conquest 
he renounced. He sat down with what he had 
the old kingdom of his forefathers, strengthened 
by his new fleet : by the stronghold of London : and 
by the restored courage and self-respect of his 
people. The dream of conquest was a dream of 

22 King Alfred 

personal ambition : he put it aside. It was part of 
that renunciation of self which belongs to the 
whole of his career. The historian Green has 
pointed out that Alfred " is the only instance in 
the history of Christendom of a ruler who put 
aside every personal aim or ambition in order to 
devote himself wholly to the welfare of those 
whom he ruled." 

We have considered Alfred as a captain, a con- 
queror, and the founder of our navy. We will 
now consider him in the capacity of king, ad- 
ministrator, and law-giver. 

I do not claim for Alfred that he was the creator 
of the English law. His glory consists mainly in 
his adaptation of the old order to the new : he 
took all that was left of the shattered past and 
moulded it anew, with additions to suit the new 
situation, and for the most part on the same lines. 
You will ask, perhaps, how much of the honour 
due to Alfred's achievements should be given to 
his ministers and how much to himself? Assign 
to his officers all the credit possible, all that belongs 
to the faithful discharge of duty : still the initia- 
tive, the design of the whole of the past, is abso- 
lutely due to Alfred himself. He must not be 
considered as a modern king the modern king 
reigns while the people rule : he was the king who 
ruled : his will ruled the land : he had his Parlia- 
ment : his Meeting of the Wise : but his will ruled 

Introduction 23 

them : he appointed his earls or aldermen : his will 
ruled them : he had his bishops : his will ruled 
them. From the time when he began to address 
himself to the organisation of a strong nation 
that is to say, from the time when the Dane was bap- 
tized, his will ruled supreme. No law existed then 
to limit the king's prerogative. The king was im- 
perator, commander of the army, and every man 
in the country was his soldier. 

Among the monuments of his reign there stands 
out pre-eminent his code of laws. He did not, I 
say, originate or invent his code. He simply took 
the old code and rewrote it, with additions and 
alterations to suit the altered conditions of the 
time. He understood, in fact, the great truth, 
which law-makers hardly ever grasp, that successful 
institutions must be the outcome of national char- 
acter. Now, the laws and customs of these nations 
Saxons, Angles, and Jutes were similar, but 
there were differences. They had grown with the 
people, and were the outcome of the national 
character. Alfred took over as the foundation of 
his work for Wessex the code compiled for the 
West Saxons by his ancestor, King Ina : for 
Mercia, that compiled by Offa, King of Mercia : 
for the Jutes, that compiled by Ethelbert, King of 
Kent. In his work two main principles guided the 
law-giver : first, that justice should be provided for 
every one, high and low, rich and poor : next, that 

24 King Alfred 

the Christian religion should be recognised as con- 
taining the Law of God : which must be the basis 
of all laws. Both these principles were especially 
necessary to be observed at this time. The de- 
vastation of the long wars had caused justice to be 
neglected : and the destruction of the churches, 
and the murder or flight of the clergy, had caused 
the people to relapse into their old superstitions. 

King Alfred then boldly began his code by 
reciting the Laws of God. His opening words 
were : " Thus saith the Lord, ' I am the Lord thy 
God.' ' That is his keynote. The laws of a 
people must conform with the Laws of God. If 
they are contrary to the spirit of these laws they 
cannot be righteous laws. In order that every one 
might himself compare his laws with the Laws of 
God, he prefaced his laws first by the Ten Com- 
mandments ; after this he quoted at length certain 
chapters of the Mosaic Law. These chapters he 
followed by the short epistle in the Acts of the 
Apostles concerning what should be expected and 
demanded of Christians. Finally, Alfred adds the 
precept from St. Matthew, " Whatsoever ye would 
that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." 

Some writers have assumed that Alfred required 
of his subjects by this preamble that they should 
be governed in all the details of life by the Mosaic 
Law. This view I cannot accept. Alfred set forth, 
I think, these laws in order that his own might 





(Cottonian Library') 

Introduction 25 

be compared with them where comparison was 
possible, and in order to challenge comparison 
and to give the greater weight to his own laws by 
showing that they were based in spirit and, mutatis 
mutandis^ on the Levitical Law and on the Law of 
the Gospel. 

Moreover, in order to connect the whole system 
of justice with religion, in order to teach the 
people in the most efficacious manner possible 
that the Church desires justice above all things, 
he added to the sentence of the judge the penance 
of the Church. This subjection of the law to the 
Church would seem intolerable to us. At that 
time it was necessary to make a rude, ignorant, 
and violent people understand that religion must 
be more than a creed : that it must have a practical 
and restraining side ; a man who was made to under- 
stand that an offence against the law was an offence 
against the Church which would be punished by 
the latter as well as by the secular judge, was made 
for the first time to feel the reality of the Church. 

This firm determination to link the Divine Law 
and the Human Law : this firm reliance on the 
Divine Law as the foundation of all law : is to 
me the most characteristic point in the whole of 
Alfred's work. The view the intention the 
purpose of King Alfred are summed up, without 
intention, by the poet whom I have already quoted. 
The following words of Rudyard Kipling might 

26 King Alfred 

be the very words of Alfred : they breathe his 
very spirit they might be, I say, the very words 
spoken by Alfred : 

Keep ye the law : be swift in all obedience 
Clear the land of evil : drive the road and bridge the ford. 
Make ye sure to each his own 
That he reap where he hath sown : 
By the Peace among our Peoples let men know we serve 
the Lord ! 

Alfred endeavoured to rebuild the monasteries. 
He then made the discovery that the old passion 
for the monastic life was gone : he could get no 
one to go into them. Forty years of a life and 
death struggle had killed the desire for the cloister : 
the people had learned to love action better than 
seclusion their ideal was now the soldier, not the 
monk. A great gain for the people, which never 
afterwards returned to its ancient love of the Rule 
and the Hood. 

His chief design in rebuilding the monasteries 
was to restore the schools. The country had 
fallen so low in learning that there was hardly a 
single priest who could translate the Church 
Service into Saxon, or could understand the words 
he sang. Alfred sent abroad for scholars : he 
made his Religious House not only a place for 
the retreat of pious men and women, but also the 
home the only possible home of learning, and 

Introduction 27 

the seat of schools. It is long since we have 
regarded a monastery as a seat of learning, or the 
proper place for a school. Go back to Alfred's 
time and consider what a monastery meant in a 
land still full of violence : in which morals had 
been lost: justice trampled down: learning destroyed : 
no schools or teachers left : the monastery stood as 
an example and a reminder of self-restraint : peace : 
and order : a life of industry and such works as the 
most ignorant must acknowledge to be good : where 
the poor and the sick were received and cared for : 
the young were taught : and the old sheltered. It 
was the Life which the monastery Rule professed ; 
the aim rather than any lower standards accepted 
by the monks : which made a monastery in that age 
like a beacon steadily and brightly burning, so that 
the people had always before their eyes a reminder 
of the self-governed life. Most of us would be 
very unwilling to see the monastery again become 
a necessity of the national life : yet we must admit 
that in the ninth century Alfred had no more 
powerful weapon for the maintenance of a religious 
standard than the monastery. 

In the cause of education, indeed, Alfred was 
before his age, and even before our age. He 
desired universal education. At his Court he pro- 
vided instructors for his children and the children 
of the nobles. They learned to read and write, 
they studied their own language and its poetry : 

28 King Alfred 

they learned Latin : and they learned what were 
called the " liberal sciences," among them the art 
of music. But he thought also of the poorer 
class. " My desire," he says, " is that all the 
freeborn youths of my people may persevere in 
learning until they can perfectly read the English 
Scriptures." Unhappily he was unable to carry 
out this wish. Only in our own days has been at 
last attempted the dream of the Saxon King the 
extension of education to the whole people. 

One more aspect of Alfred's foresight. He 
endeavoured to remove the separation of his island 
from the rest of the world : he connected his 
people with the civilisation of Western Europe by 
encouraging scholars and men of learning, workers 
in gold, and craftsmen of all kinds, to come over : 
he created commercial relations with foreign 
countries : a merchant who made three voyages 
to the Mediterranean he ennobled : he sent an 
embassy every year to Rome : he sent an embassy 
as far as India : he brought to bear upon 
the somewhat sluggish minds of his people the 
imagination and the curiosity which would here- 
after engender a spirit of enterprise to which no 
other nation can offer a parallel. 

It was partly with this view that he strongly 
enforced the connection with Rome. One bond 
of union the nations of the West should have a 
common Faith : and that defined and interpreted 

Introduction 29 

for them by the same authority. Had it not been 
for that central authority the nations would have 
been divided, rather than drawn towards each other, 
by a Christianity split up into at least as many 
sects as there were languages. Imagine the evil, in 
an ignorant time, of fifty nations, each swearing by 
its own creed, and every creed different. From 
this danger Alfred kept his country free. 

The last, not the least, of his achievements is 
that to Alfred we owe the foundations of our 
literature : the most noble literature that the world 
has ever seen. He collected and preserved the 
poetry based on the traditions and legends brought 
from the German Forests. He himself delighted to 
hear and to repeat these legends and traditions : 
the deeds of the mighty warriors who fought with 
monsters, dragons, wild boars, and huge serpents. 
He made his children learn their songs : he had 
them sung in his Court. The tradition goes that 
he could himself sing them to the music of his 
own harp. This wild and spontaneous poetry 
which Alfred preserved is the beginning of our 
own noble choir of poets. In other words, the 
foundation of that stately Palace of Literature, 
built up by our poets and writers for the admira- 
tion and instruction and consolation of mankind, 
was laid by Alfred. Well, but he did more than 
collect the poetry, he began the prose. Before 
Alfred there was no Anglo-Saxon prose. 

30 King Alfred 

I have already quoted Green's remark that in 
everything that Alfred designed or accomplished 
he put aside every personal aim or ambition in 
order to devote himself wholly to the welfare of 
those over whom he ruled. In his capacity as 
author this remark is specially illustrated. You all 
know that it is the leading characteristic or the 
infirmity of the poet, author, writer, to consider 
himself as part of his message. Alfred put himself 
aside : he presented his works in translations : 
they were, indeed, translations : but embellished, 
altered, enriched by his own work thus modestly 
presented. There is one book, now quite neglected, 
which for a thousand years profoundly moved the 
world of Western Europe. It is a book, written 
in prison by a noble Roman named Boethius, a 
philosopher, soldier, poet, and mathematician. It 
is entitled the Consolation of Philosophy. Fortu- 
nately the author, who wrote it from a prison, had 
time to finish it before they executed him. This 
book Alfred translated or imitated. For he filled 
his translations with his own thoughts and his own 
judgments. He gives his own theories of govern- 
ment : of the duties of a king : of maintaining the 
population, and especially the proper proportion of 
the different classes required to keep the nation in 
a state of efficiency. Every man in the country is 
a weapon which may be and should be used for 
the advancement of the general welfare. It is the 

Introduction 3 1 

king's duty to select the best instruments, and to 
use them to the best advantage. We even find 
brief notes of his own thoughts. " This," says 
the king, among these notes, " I can now truly 
say, that so long as I have lived I have striven to 
live worthily, and after my death to leave my 
memory to my descendants in good works." 

It is not the part of this Introduction to dwell 
upon the whole of Alfred's literary work. It is 
enough if we recognise that he introduced educa- 
tion and restored learning. In the course of time, 
innumerable books were attributed to him : it is said 
that he translated the Psalms. A book of proverbs 
and sayings is attributed to him each one begins 
with the words "Thus said Alfred." The Anglo- 
Saxon Chronicle and contemporary record of events 
is said to have been commenced by him. And 
since it is certain from the life of the king by one 
of his own Court that he was regarded by all classes 
of his people with the utmost reverence and re- 
spect, I think it is extremely likely that some of 
his people listened and took down in writing the 
sayings of the king, so that the book of Alfred's 
sayings may be as authentic as the sayings of Dr. 
Johnson, recorded by his admirer Boswell. 

There is next to be observed the permanence 

of Alfred's institutions. They do not perish, but 

remain. His Witenagemot Meeting of the Wise 

is our Parliament it has developed into our 

3 a King Alfred 

many Parliaments. His order of King, Thane, 
and Freeman is our order of King, Lords, and 
Commons. His theory of education was carried 
out in some of the towns, and in all the monas- 
teries and cathedrals : there are schools still existing 
which owe their origin to a period before the 
Norman Conquest. His foundation of all law 
upon the Laws of God remains our own : his 
liberties are our liberties : his navy is the ancestor 
of our navy : the literature which he planted has 
grown into a goodly tree the Monarch of the 
Forest : the foreign trade that he began is the 
forerunner of our foreign trade : it would seem 
as if there was hardly any point in which we have 
reason to be grateful or proud which was not 
foreseen by this wise king. 

To look for the secret of his wisdom is like 
looking for the secret of making a great poem or 
writing a great play : it may be arrived at and 
described, but it is not therefore the easier of 
imitation. Alfred's secret is quite simple. His 
work was permanent because it was established on 
the national character. It was in order to make 
this point clear that I dwelt at length on the 
character of the people over whom Alfred ruled. 
He knew their character, and by instinct, which we 
call genius, he gave his people the laws and the 
education, and the power of development for which 
thev were fitted. No other laws, no other kind of 

Introduction 3 3 

government, will enable a people to prosper ex- 
cept those laws to which they have grown and 
are adapted. Only those institutions, I repeat, are 
permanent which are based on the national char- 
acter. That was the secret of King Alfred the 

It may be asked, what manner of man to look at 
was this great king ? His biographer, Asser, who 
knew him well, has not thought fit to tell us. He 
only says in words of flattery that Alfred was more 
comely and gracious of aspect than his brothers. 
These brothers, four in number, were all kings 
before him, and all died young. Alfred himself 
was afflicted by a disease which never left him. It 
is therefore presumable that there was some con- 
genital weakness in them all. This was not 
physical weakness : whatever the disease, it did 
not interfere with Alfred's courage or his prowess 
in battle. This is proved by the fact that the 
Saxon kings actually fought in person in the fore- 
front of the battle, and on foot. Alfred, for in- 
stance, fought in a dozen battles at least, and 
always with the valour that belongs to a strong 
man. I take him to have been a man of good 
stature and of strong build : a man whose appear- 
ance was kingly : who impressed his followers 
with the gallant and confident carriage of a brave 
soldier. But as to his face, or the colour of his 
hair or eyes, I can tell nothing. Fair hair he had, 


34 King Alfred 

I think, and blue eyes : or the more common 
type of brown hair and gray eyes. When a king 
resigns all personal ambitions and seeks nothing 
for himself, it seems natural and fitting that, while 
his works live after him, he himself should vanish 
without leaving so much as a tradition of his face 
or figure. 

From time to time in history generally in some 
time of great doubt and trouble : or in some time 
when the old ideals are in danger of being 
forgotten : or in some time when the nation seems 
losing the sense of duty and of responsibility : 
there appears one, man or woman, who restores 
the better spirit of the people by his example : by 
his preaching : by his self-sacrifice : by his martyr- 
dom. He is the prophet as priest : the prophet as 
king : the prophet as law-giver. There passes in 
imagination before us a splendid procession of men 
and women who have thus restored a nation or 
raised the fallen ideals. Among them we recognise 
many faces : there are Savonarola : Francis of 
Assisi : Joan of Arc : our own Queen Elizabeth, 
greatest and strongest of all women : the Czar 
Peter. But the greatest figure of them all the 
most noble the most god-like is that of the 
ninth-century Alfred, king of that little country 
which you have upon your map. There is none 
like Alfred in the whole page of history : none 
with a record altogether so blameless : none so wise : 

Introduction 3 5 

none so human. We have allowed the memory of 
him to be too much forgotten : only here and 
there a historian such as Freeman or Green lifts 
up his voice and proclaims aloud that he has no 
words with which to speak adequately of this great 
Englishman. Perhaps the noble lines of Tennyson, 
written for another prince whose memory is dear 
to us all, may be referred to Alfred : 

Who reverenced his conscience as his king ; 
Whose glory was, redressing human wrong ; 
Who spake no slander, no, nor listen'd to it j 
Who loved one only and who clave to her 
We know him now : we see him as he moved : 
How modest, kindly, all-accomplish'd, wise, 
With what sublime repression of himself; 
Not making his high place the lawless perch 
Of wing'd ambitions, nor a vantage-ground 
For pleasure ; but thro' all this tract of years 
Wearing the white flower of a blameless life. 

It is the purpose the wise and patriotic 
purpose of certain persons to erect, for these and 
other reasons, a monument, visible to all, to the 
memory of King Alfred. 

Some of the points which I have recalled in 
this paper may help to show why such a monument 
would have been fitting at any time during the last 
thousand years. There is, however, a special 
reason which makes the erection of such a monu- 
ment very necessary I use the word necessary 

36 King Alfred 

advisedly at the present time. In the year 1897 
on that memorable day when we were all drunk 
with the visible glory and the greatness of the 
Empire there arose in the minds of many a feeling 
that we ought to teach the people the meaning of 
what we saw set forth in that procession the mean- 
ing of our Empire not only what it is, but how it 
came through whose creation by whose founda- 
tion. Now so much is Alfred the Founder that 
every ship in our Navy might have his name 
every school his bust : every Guildhall his statue. 
He is everywhere. But he is invisible. And the 
people do not know him. The boys do not learn 
about him. There is nothing to show him. We 
want a monument to Alfred, if only to make the 
people learn and remember the origin of our 
Empire if only that his noble example may be 
kept before us, to stimulate and to inspire and to 

It seems unnecessary to urge that a monument 
to Alfred must be set up in Winchester, and 
not in London or in Westminster, or any- 
where else. Here lies the dust of the kings his 
ancestors, and of the kings his successors. Thirty- 
five of his line made Winchester their capital : 
twenty were buried in the Cathedral. In this city 
Alfred received instruction from St. Swithin : the 
city was already old and venerable when Alfred 
was a boy. He was buried first in the Cathedral, 

Introduction 37 

and afterwards in the Abbey, which he himself 
founded, hard by. The name of Alfred's country, 
well-nigh forgotten, except by scholars, has been 
revived of late years by a Wessex man Thomas 
Hardy. But the name of Alfred's capital 
continues in the venerable and historic city 
of Winchester, which yields to none in Eng- 
land for the monuments and the memories of 
the past. 

I venture, lastly, to express my own personal 
hope that great as were the achievements of Alfred 
the keynote to be struck and to be maintained 
will be that Alfred is, and will always remain, the 
typical man of our race call him Anglo-Saxon, 
call him American, call him Englishman, call him 
Australian the typical man of our race at his best 
and noblest. I like to think that the face of the 
Anglo-Saxon at his best and noblest is the face of 
Alfred. I am quite sure and certain that the mind 
of the Anglo-Saxon at his best and noblest is the 
mind of Alfred : that the aspirations, the hopes, 
the standards of the Anglo-Saxon at his best and 
noblest are the aspirations, the hopes, the standards 
of Alfred. He is truly our Leader, our Founder, 
our King. When our monument takes shape 
and form let it somehow recognise this great, this 
cardinal fact. Let it show somehow by the 
example of Alfred the Anglo-Saxon at his best and 
noblest here within the circle of the narrow seas, 

38 King Alfred 

or across the ocean ; wherever King Alfred's lan- 
guage is spoken ; wherever King Alfred's laws 
prevail ; into whatever fair lands of the wide world 
King Alfred's descendants have penetrated. 





T is a commonplace with historians 
and with the historians of many 
countries and different schools of 
opinion that our English Alfred was 
the only perfect man of action recorded in history ; 
for Aurelius was occasionally too much of the philo- 
sopher ; Saint Louis usually too much of the saint ; 
Godfrey too much of the Crusader ; the great 
Emperors were not saints at all ; and of all more 
modern heroes we know too much to pretend that 
they were perfect. Of all the hyperboles of praise 
there is but one that we can safely justify with the 
strictest canons of historic research. Of all the 
names in history there is only our English Alfred 
whose record is without stain and without weak- 
ness who is equally amongst the greatest of men 
in genius, in magnanimity, in valour, in moral 
purity, in intellectual force, in practical wisdom, 
and in beauty of soul. In his recorded career 
from infancy to death, we can find no single 
trait that is not noble and suggestive, nor a 

42 King Alfred 

single act or word that can he counted as a 

In the history of modern Europe there is 
nothing which can compare in duration and in 
organic continuity with the unbroken evolution of 
our English nation. And now that the royal 
house of France has passed from the sphere of 
political realities into that of historic memories, 
there is no dynasty in Europe which can be named 
in the same breath with that which has seen a suc- 
cession of forty-nine sovereigns since Alfred ; nor 
has any King or Cassar a record of ancestry which 
can compare with that of the royal Lady who 
through thirty-two generations traces her lineal 
descent to the Hero-King of Wessex. 

We have long given up the venerable fables 
which once gathered round the name of Alfred, as 
round Romulus, or Theseus, King Arthur, or the 
Cid. Every schoolboy knows that Alfred was 
not formally King of all England ; nor did he 
introduce trial by jury, or electoral institutions; he 
did not found the University of Oxford ; nor 
write all the pieces which are attributed to his pen ; 
he was perhaps too practical a man to let his 
own supper get burnt on the hearth ; and too wary 
a general to go about masquerading with a harp 
in the enemy's camp. But the historic Alfred 
whom we know to-day is a personage more splendid 
and lifelike than the legendary Alfred ever was. 

As King 43 

Though much of what our grandsires believed about 
Alfred is now known to be poetry and pious fraud, 
the traditional Alfred was quite just in general 
effect, and modern research has given us a portrait 
both nobler and more definite than that drawn by 
the patriotic imagination of a less critical age. 
Patriotic imagination itself falls far short of scrupu- 
lous scholarship when it seeks to draw the likeness 
of a real hero. 

It is true that the field of Alfred's achievements 
was relatively small, and the whole scale of his 
career was modest indeed when compared with that 
of his imperial compeers. He inherited a king- 
dom which covered only a few English counties, 
and at one time his realm was reduced to a smaller 
area than that of some private landlords of modern 
times. Beside the great Emperor Charles, or the 
German Ottos, Henrys, and Fredericks of the 
Middle Ages, his dominions, his resources, his 
armies, his battles, his fleets, his administrative 
machinery, his contemporary glory all these were 
almost in miniature hardly a tithe of theirs. But, 
we should remember, it is quality not quantity 
that weighs in the impartial scales of History. True 
human greatness needs no vast territories as its stage 
nor do multitudes add to its power. That which 
tells in the end is the living seed of the creative mind, 
the heroic example, the sovereign gift of leader- 
ship, the undying inspiration of genius and faith. 

44 King Alfred 

Turn to the Chronicle and to Asser's Life, with 
recent historians and scholars, and mark those 
miracles of patience, valour, indomitable energy by 
which the great king rescued from the savage 
Norsemen the England of our forefathers. Watch 
him as he returns to the charge after every repulse, 
rallies his exhausted men, gathers up new armies, 
plans fresh methods of war, and at last wins for his 
people prosperity, honour, and peace. The scale of 
these campaigns was narrow the armies were small 
not indeed weaker than were the Greeks at Ther- 
mopylae and Marathon ; but the annals of war 
have nothing grander than the long record of 
sagacious heroism by which Alfred saved England 
for the English. Then note the genius with 
which he saw that the Norsemen must be met on 
the sea, with which he organised a navy of ships 
built on a new design of his own. Alfred is not 
only the forerunner of Marlborough and Welling- 
ton, but he was the first to teach the Saxon to be 
a seaman. 

A fine land that had once known prosperity, 
and even culture, lay utterly ruined and desolate 
when Alfred undertook the vast task of its restora- 
tion its material, moral, intellectual reform. He 
said in his Will, "we were all despoiled by the 
Heathen Folk." He found the enemy in posses- 
sion of something like a standing army of 
disciplined soldiers ; and we should note how the 

As King 45 

Chronicle calls the Norsemen " the army." He 
met this by instituting a regular militia with 
local garrisons and a reserve force capable of 
systematic war. When Alfred marshals a new 
campaign we find that the era of wild raids to be 
met by casual musters of countrymen is a thing of 
the past. Alfred at last has his " army " too. We 
are dealing with regular armies capable of sustain- 
ing organised campaigns. 

A navy needed to be created and not simply 
reformed. And the safety of the southern shores 
of England the first command of the Channel 
must be dated from the day when Alfred began 
the formation of an adequate fleet. It is true that 
in the absence of competent seamen in Wessex, 
he had to man his earliest ships with Frisians from 
over the sea. But in later years he came to have 
a really English fleet of his own. And it is plain 
that in a true sense he is the inventor, but not the 
actual founder, of a national navy : of that sea- 
power which is the birthright of this island. 

When Alfred was chosen king, " almost against 
his will," we are told, the prospect was one to 
appal the stoutest heart. In his boyhood the 
Northmen had begun to winter in Kent, had taken 
Canterbury and London by storm, and pushed up 
the Thames. A few years later they stormed 
Winchester and ravaged Kent. In the reign of 
his brother, Ethelred, they stormed York, and 

46 King Alfred 

invaded Mercia, whose king, Burhred, had married 
Alfred's sister. They next laid waste East Anglia, 
martyred its king, Edmund, and threatened 
Wessex. The Danes (as they were now known) 
sailed up the Thames, and formed a camp round 
Reading. In a fierce battle at Ashdown a victory 
had been won for the moment by the energy and 
valour of Alfred ; but defeats followed, Surrey 
was lost, and Ethelred died, it is supposed of his 

The young king of twenty-two came to the 
throne of his ancestors in a dark hour. The 
supremacy of Wessex in England, won by his 
grandfather, Egbert, had vanished. Northumbria, 
Mercia, East Anglia, and parts of Wessex had 
been desolated ; the abbeys had been sacked, the 
monks murdered, the churches, schools, and home- 
steads ruined. The Danish invaders were masters 
of all Northern, Eastern, and Central England, 
and the heart of Wessex was open to assault. 
The young king met them at Wilton with a small 
force, but after a stubborn fight was beaten off. 
He was forced to purchase a precarious truce. 

In this year, 871, the Chronicle relates (in its 
grim, laconic style), the [Danish] army came to 
Reading, and three nights after, the Alderman 
Ethelwulf fought them. Four nights after this, 
Ethelred and Alfred led a large force to Reading, 
and " there was great slaughter on both sides ; 

As King 47 

the Alderman Ethelwulf was slain, and the Danes 
held possession of the battle place." " And four 
nights after, Ethelred and Alfred fought with all 
the army at Ashdown " ; many thousands were 
slain ; " and they were fighting until night." 
And fourteen nights after, King Ethelred and 
Alfred his brother fought against the army at 
Basing, and there the Danes gained the victory. 
" And two months after, King Ethelred and 
Alfred his brother fought against the army at 
Merton . . . and there was great slaughter on 
each side, but the Danes held possession of the 
battle place. And after this fight there came a 
great summer force [of Danes] to Reading. And 
the Easter after, King Ethelred died. Then 
Alfred his brother succeeded to the kingdom of 
the West Saxons, and one month after, with a small 
force, he fought against all the army at Wilton, but 
the Danes held possession of the battle place. 
And this year nine great battles were fought 
against the army in the kingdom south of the 
Thames ; besides which Alfred, the king's brother, 
and individual aldermen, and king's thanes, often 
rode raids on them, which were not reckoned''' 

Such were the disasters with which Alfred's 
reign began. His fighting-men were exhausted or 
slaughtered ; his kingdom torn from side to side, 
and its chief towns stormed : the northern, central, 
and eastern kingdoms had been blotted out. 

48 King Alfred 

Burhred of Mercia was driven over sea, and 
Wessex was forced to buy a brief rest with gold. 
Alfred equipped a few ships and gained some 
temporary success. But soon after, the Danes 
with a great fleet swept round the south coast 
and penetrated into Dorsetshire and Devonshire. 
Thence passing northwards into Gloucestershire, 
and reinforced by a new fleet in the Bristol 
Channel, the Danish host suddenly fell upon Wilt- 
shire. The Saxon defence was broken in pieces. 
"The [Danish] army harried the West Saxons' 
land, and settled there, and drove over sea much 
of the people, and of the rest the most they 
harried. And the people submitted to them, save 
the King Alfred ; and he, with a little band, with- 
drew to the woods and fastnesses in the moors" 

Alfred seemed utterly ruined. He, the grand- 
son of Egbert overlord of England, the successor 
on the throne of Wessex of his father and his three 
brothers, had been king just seven years, and in 
scores of battles he had been fighting the Danes 
for ten years. He had seen the three northern 
kingdoms of Angles broken up and the reigning 
house in each exterminated. Step by step he had 
seen Kent, Surrey, and Wessex overrun ; assailed 
by sea and land, from the coast, the rivers, and the 
Bristol Channel. His own people had been driven 
across sea, or crushed into submission ; and he 
himself, with a small band of followers, was forced 

As King 49 

to find shelter in woods and swamps. His lot 
seemed hopeless, but he alone did not despair. 

The crisis was indeed the gravest to which our 
country has ever been exposed. The Danish host 
was now a large and disciplined army bent on con- 
quering and settling new lands, and already masters 
of the island from the Severn to the Tees. They 
were the fiercest and rudest of the tribes which 
had broken into Europe ; Heathens, full of hatred 
and scorn for the religion, culture, arts, and 
civilisation of Christendom. With a real genius for 
war, both by sea and land, fired with the thirst of 
glory and adventure, they were better armed, more 
mobile, more martially organised than Saxon, 
Angle, or Jute. Short of a miracle their ultimate 
triumph over the whole island seemed certain. 
Had it been achieved, the civilisation of England 
would have been retarded for ages. Christianity, 
learning, arts, and legislation, which had progressed 
for two centuries, would have been stamped out, 
and our island would have been the seat of a 
barbarous and heathen horde. From the nature 
of their island conquest and their own mastery of 
the seas, they could not have been absorbed in 
Christendom so rapidly as were the Normans of 
France, or the Danubian tribes of Germany. They 
might have resisted for centuries both conversion 
and conquest from Europe. Nay more, from the 
supreme opportunities afforded by our island and all 


50 King Alfred 

its resources as a basis for an imperial race, it is 
too probable that the heathen Danes, once firmly 
seated in the whole of Britain, might have proved 
the lasting scourge of Europe itself. From this 
tremendous peril, England and Europe were saved 
by the genius of our Saxon hero. 

In the Easter of that year, 878, the Chronicle 
relates, " Alfred, with a little band, wrought a 
fortress at Athelney, and from that work warred 
on the army, with that portion of the men of 
Somerset that was nearest." Athelney was a bit 
of firm ground in the morasses formed by the 
Parret and the Tone in Somersetshire. There, for 
a few months, the king organised a new army, 
drawn from Somerset and Wilts and such Hants 
men as were left. In May he suddenly dashed 
out of the wood of Selwood : " his Wessex men 
were rejoiced to see him " : he fought a great fight 
against the whole "army" at Ethandune, near 
Westbury, put them to flight and drove them to 
their camp, where, after fourteen days of siege, he 
forced the Danes to surrender. It was a crushing 
victory the turning-point in the life of Alfred 
in the life of England. 

The importance of it was this. A part of the 
beaten host sailed away over seas. But the rest, 
under their king, Guthrum, agreed to accept 
Christian baptism, to withdraw out of Wessex and 
the western half of Mercia, and to settle peaceably 

As King 51 

in East Anglia, north of Thames. Guthrum, 
with thirty of his chiefs, came to Alfred's strong- 
hold, received at his baptism the Saxon name of 
Athelstan from his victor and god-father, remained 
twelve days with the king and gave large presents. 
By the Peace of Wedmore, 878, Wessex and 
West England were saved, and the ultimate in- 
corporation of the Danes with Christendom was 
secured. At first sight and in strict form, Alfred 
had surrendered Eastern England to the conqueror. 
The Treaty was not honestly observed by the 
Danes, and Guthrum and his warriors again 
became enemies. But the core of England was 
saved ; the amalgamation of Dane and Saxon was 
founded in principle and in distant effect. And 
the Peace of Wedmore was a stroke of genius 
more daring and more far-reaching in result than 
the splendid victory of Ethandune by which it had 
been won. 

Leaving the Danes for the present undisturbed 
in all Eastern England between Thames and Tees, 
Alfred occupied himself with restoring his shattered 
and desolated Kingdom of Wessex. His treasury 
was empty, the towns were in ruins, and civil 
government paralysed. He built forts, abbeys, 
and schools ; repeopled and stocked waste districts ; 
and set to work to establish something like a stand- 
ing military force to meet the regular " army " of 
Danes. Hitherto Alfred had commanded loose 

52 King Alfred 

levies of half-armed men, who by custom disbanded 
after two months' service. This had enabled small 
but organised bands of Danes to overrun England, 
and to win practical successes even when beaten by 
numbers in the fields. Alfred, like William of 
Normandy in the eleventh, like Cromwell in 
the seventeenth century, saw, even so early as the 
ninth century, that victory belonged not to numbers 
but to regular armies. He organised what was at 
least a permanent local militia, with definite quotas 
of levies and an alternate system of reserves, besides 
the garrisons of fortified places. He rebuilt the 
broken fortresses, exercised his men in entrench- 
ments, and adapted from the Danes their military 

But his eye of genius foresaw that the country 
was not safe whilst the invaders had command of 
the seas. Thus he organised a fleet, and assessed 
the ports and maritime districts to support it. He 
himself ultimately designed a class of ship, longer 
and swifter than those in use, though at first he 
had to man his navy with mercenary Frisians and 
sea-rovers. Towards the close of his reign, and 
in that of his son and grandson, a genuine English 
navy asserted its command of the Channel, which 
two centuries later his feeble successors lost again. 

He then turned to reorganise the system of 
justice, making the judges the direct ministers of 
the sovereign, personally responsible to him, and 

As King 53 

subject in certain cases to his final appeal. His bio- 
grapher tells us that he keenly revised unjust judg- 
ments, and tradition exaggerated this into a pre- 
posterous legend. He caused a collection of the 
old laws to be compiled carefully resisting any 
general new legislation, or the fusion of the Wessex, 
Mercian, and Kentish customs into a symmetrical 
code. His laws were a compilation, with selection 
of what was approved best, and rejection of what 
was condemned as obsolete or mischievous. In 
the spirit of conservative amendment which marks 
his whole career, he is careful to tell us that he 
" durst not venture to set down much of his own." 
He was content with partial revision and excision, 
under the advice of his Witan. 

The combination in a code of Saxon, Anglian, 
and Kentish " dooms " gave a certain stimulus 
towards national union in a larger aggregate. But 
a much more powerful cause unexpectedly emerged 
out of the Danish invasions. By these savage 
shocks the royal houses that had ruled in Mercia, 
in East Anglia, in Northumbria, were not only 
overthrown, but were extinct. Alfred remained 
the one victorious king of the race of Cerdic, the 
legitimate sovereign of Wessex and Kent, the 
natural source of kingly authority wherever Danes 
were not in possession of rule. Having won back 
the western half of Mercia by the Peace of Wed- 
more, Alfred became its king by silent consent of 

54 King Alfred 

its Anglian people. He did not fuse West Mercia 
with Wessex ; he was not formally installed or 
crowned. He made Ethelred, the husband of his 
daughter Ethelfleda, alderman, and himself exer- 
cised the functions of king, with a separate Mercian 
administration and Witan. By this wise and tenta- 
tive system of dual monarchy, Alfred was firmly 
seated the undisputed sovereign of Southern Eng- 
land from the mouth of the Thames to the Exe, 
ruling by his son-in-law all Central England west 
of Watling Street from the Severn to the Kibble. 
He thus became, but a few years after his romantic 
sortie from Athelney, the most powerful ruler 
holding the widest single realm within our island. 
This effected a practical supremacy over the main 
part of England proper, except for the Danes in 
the east. And he thus made it possible that there 
should be a true English kingdom, of which his 
son Edward, and his grandson Athelstan, were 
formally recognised as sovereigns. 

More than once after the settlement effected at 
Wedmore and the years of peace it brought, Alfred 
had to meet formidable enemies both by sea and 
land. But fierce as these campaigns were, they 
did not imply such incessant warfare, such desperate 
crises, as had made the first ten years of his early 
manhood one long battle for life and home. Alfred 
was now at least as well able to defend his country 
from the Scandinavian invaders as were the rulers 

As King 55 

of France and Germany, on whom the storm burst 
whenever the Northmen had been checked in 

Six years after the Peace of Wedmore Alfred 
had to meet again a force of Danes which had 
pushed up the Thames, and to chastise the East 
Anglians who had violated the Treaty by a fresh 
outbreak. A new treaty with Guthrum gave 
Alfred possession of London and adjacent parts 
of Middlesex, which were finally rescued from the 
Danes, and annexed to English Mercia under its 
alderman, Ethelred, Alfred's son-in-law. Again, 
in the twenty-third year of Alfred's reign a new 
body of Vikings from Norway descended on to 
Wessex and were joined by a second rising of the 
Anglian Danes. For more than two years the 
war was continued over a large part of England 
from the Thames and its affluents across to the 
Severn ; from Exeter northwards to Chester. By 
a series of vigorous and skilful campaigns, in con- 
certed strategy of armies and fleets, the king, his 
son and his son-in-law, defeated this formidable 
combination, captured the entire Danish fleet, 
overawed the Britons of Wales and Cornwall, 
forced the East Anglian Danes to keep within 
their own reserves, and drove the northern free- 
booters across the Channel. Once again, in the 
last years of his reign, Alfred had to meet a new 
invasion of pirates at sea, who were defeated in a 

56 King Alfred 

series of fierce and bloody encounters. These are 
the last recorded campaigns of the king, who 
from his boyhood, for nearly thirty years, had 
been continually in arms ; but, by obstinate wars 
and sagacious policy, he had tamed the savage 
Norsemen, and at length transmitted to his 
descendants a kingdom doubled and trebled in 
extent and greatly increased in culture and 

England had been rescued from barbarism by 
the heroism of Alfred and his aptitude for war. 
But it is his genius as a creative statesman which 
left permanent effects on the history of England 
and made him one of the principal founders of the 
greatness of our country. His conversion and 
settlement of Guthrum's Danes in East Anglia, his 
generous forbearance and his repeated treaties with 
them in spite of their faithless conduct, Jed to the 
ultimate amalgamation of Dane, Angle, and Saxon, 
which created the compound English race. A less 
sagacious victor would have sought to clear his 
country of Norsemen, and would undoubtedly 
have been overwhelmed by successive invasions 
himself. Alfred's whole career shows a conscious 
purpose to break with the tribal and local isolation 
of the West Saxon, to attach Wessex with Mercia, 
to civilise Dane and Briton, and to bring England 
into closer union with the religious and political 
system of Europe. 

As King 57 

Alfred's restoration of London was the stroke 
of a true statesman. The city had been stormed 
by the Norsemen in 851, and since then had been 
desolate and almost deserted, save when occupied 
by the Danes as winter-quarters, as it was in 872. 
Within the Danish power it remained until 886, the 
year of Alfred's second treaty with Gu thrum. By 
that it was ceded to him with the adjacent part 
of Middlesex. The king rebuilt its walls and 
repeopled it, and added it to Mercia, from which 
it was not again separated. The military and 
political genius of Alfred and his long experience 
of war with the Danes had seized on the immense 
importance of a restored London, carved out of 
Danish East Anglia, with power to block all 
incursions up the Thames and its various tributary 
rivers. The restoration of London by the King 
of Wessex was thus an epoch in the history, not 
only of the city itself, but of the country of which 
it was destined by nature to be the capital. 

Alfred had been at this date fifteen years on 
the throne, and the whole aspect of affairs was 
changed. When he began to reign heathen 
barbarians were masters of the Eastern, Central, 
and Northern parts of England, and threatened to 
break up Wessex. They swept round all coasts, 
and pushed up the rivers, plundering, burning, 
raiding, and slaughtering. Now, they were shut 
up in East Anglia, outwardly christianised, bound 

58 King Alfred 

by formal treaties of peace, confronted at sea by 
strong fleets, and gradually submitting to the 
moral force of superior civilisation. As Goths 
and Franks were overawed by the Roman empire 
they conquered, so Vikings and Danes gradually 
recognised the higher organisation of Wessex. 
Alfred at last ruled over a compact realm stretching 
from the Channel up to the Kibble, with fortresses 
in such places as Rochester, London, Exeter, and 
Chester. Lastly, in a rebuilt London, he was 
master of the Thames, with a powerful base on 
the Danish side of the great river. 

As Alfred, we are told, was at Rome in his 
sixth year, and had subsequently been with his 
father at the Court of Charles the Bald, whose 
daughter Judith became the boy's step-mother, the 
young king must have been impressed by his 
memories of foreign lands. His yearly embassies 
with offerings to the Pope, and the restoration of 
the Saxon College at Rome, bear witness to his 
close relations with the See. He married his own 
daughter, Elfrida, to Baldwin II., Count of 
Flanders, son of the same Judith, and ancestor of 
Matilda, wife of the Conqueror. This brought 
about a connection between England and Flanders, 
both so much threatened by Northmen invaders. 

With the Britons of Cornwall and Wales 
Alfred's policy showed the same moderation, 
sagacity, and practical skill. They were not 

As King 59 

dangerous unless united and in active combination 
with Danes. By the creation of English Mercia, 
he effectively cut them off from East Anglia ; and 
his whole policy was directed to detach them by 
separate tribes and to win them into peaceful union 
with his own people. He had to fight them in 
groups from time to time, but he never attempted 
to conquer or annex them in the mass. And after 
the failure of the house of Roderick, of North 
Wales, Alfred secured a recognised supremacy 
over both North and South Welsh. His wise, 
firm, and victorious government impressed the 
smaller and more backward tribes on all sides ; so 
that, without demanding any formal subjection, 
his paramount authority was recognised over the 
island, whilst his sphere of influence was extended 
to Northumbrians and Scots. The defence and 
reorganisation of Wessex had founded a sentiment 
of national unity, which was ultimately to be con- 
solidated in a formal kingdom of all England. 
He made Wessex an organic, civilised, and pro- 
gressive kingdom, and created it as the type which 
England was to follow. 

It was the same idea of bringing England into 
the European world which suggested Alfred's very 
remarkable series of distant voyages and missions. 
The characteristic account of the discoveries of 
Ohthere and Wulfstan round the North Cape and 
in the Baltic, which Alfred inserts into his trans- 

60 King Alfred 

lation of Orosius, testifies to the king's strong 
interest in the geography and ethnography of 
Europe. The expedition which he despatched to 
India, it is said, in 883, to the shrines of St. Thomas 
and St. Bartholomew, in accordance with his vow 
when he recovered London from the Danes, was a 
really extraordinary feat for that age ; and, though 
some of the MSS. read Judea for India, it is 
thought that the mission was really sent to 
Christian churches then known to exist in India. 
Asser relates that the king received letters and 
presents from the patriarch of Jerusalem ; a tale 
which the later writers considerably embellish. A 
deep impression was left by Alfred's zeal to extend 
his foreign relations with distant lands. 

His policy of calling in men of learning, teachers, 
ecclesiastics, and seamen from countries outside his 
own, is more fully recorded. Asser, the learned and 
excellent monk of St. David's, was brought out of 
Wales and pressed into the service of the king, 
whose friend, counsellor, and biographer he became. 
Plegmund was brought out of Mercia and made 
Archbishop of Canterbury ; another Mercian, 
Werfrith, Bishop of Worcester, was the constant 
adviser of the king, both in literary and in state 
affairs. Grimbald was brought from the mon- 
astery of St. Omcr ; and John, of Saxony, from 
the monastery of Corbey. With these came learned 
monks to organise the new abbeys and schools 

As King 6 1 

which Alfred founded. He encouraged foreign 
traders, and summoned artists and craftsmen from 
the Continent to direct his buildings and arts. 
Until his Saxons had learned seamanship, he en- 
gaged Frisians to man his ships, and took into his 
service adventurous Vikings such as Ohthere and 

Alfred has left us his own conception of what a 
king should be : and no preacher or moralist has 
ever drawn the portrait in grander lines : 

Power is never a good, unless he be good that has it ; 
so it is the good of the man, not of the power. If power 
be goodness, therefore is it that no man by his dominion 
can come to the virtues, and to merit ; but by his virtues 
and merit he comes to dominion and power. Thus no 
man is better for his power ; but if he be good, it is from 
his virtues that he is good. From his virtues he becomes 
worthy of power, if he be worthy of it. . . . By wisdom 
you may come to power, though you should not desire the 
power. You need not be solicitous about power, nor 
strive after it. If you be wise and good, it will follow 
you, though you should not wish it. 

Ah ! Wise One, thou knowest that greed and the 
possession of this earthly power never were pleasing to me, 
nor did I ever greatly desire this earthly kingdom save 
that I desired tools and materials to do the work that 
it was commanded me to do. This was that I might 
guide and wield wisely the authority committed to me. 
Why ! thou knowest that no man may understand any 
craft or wield any power, unless he have tools and 
materials. Every craft has its proper tools. But the 

62 King Alfred 

tools that a king needs to rule are these : to have his land 
fully peopled ; to have priestmen, and soldiermen, and 
workmen. Yea ! thou knowest that without these tools 
no king can put forth his capacity to rule. ... It was for 
this I desired materials to govern with, that my ability to 
rule might not be forgotten and hidden away. For every 
faculty and authority is apt to grow obsolete and ignored, 
if it be without wisdom ; and that which is done in 
unwisdom can never be reckoned as skill. This will I 
say that I have sought to live worthily the while I lived^ 
and after my life to leave to the men that come after me a 
remembering of me in good works. 

Ah ! my soul, one evil is stoutly to be shunned. It 
is that which most constantly and grievously deceives all 
those who have a nature of distinction, but who have not 
attained to full command of their powers. This is the 
desire of false glory and of unrighteous power, and of 
immoderate fame of good deeds above all other people. 
For many men desire power that they may have fame, 
though they be unworthy, for even the most depraved 
desire it also. But he that will investigate this fame 
wisely and earnestly, will perceive how little it is, 
how precarious, how frail, how bereft it is of all that is 

Glory of this world ! Why do foolish men with 
a false voice call thee glory ? Thou art not so. More 
men have pomp and glory and worship from the opinion 
of foolish people, than they have from their own works. 

They say a certain king cried : he had a naked 
sword hanging over his head by a small thread ready at 
a moment to cut short his life. It was so always to 
me. , 

As King 63 

Alfred's relations to the Church were wholly with- 
out a cloud or a blot alike free from the violence 
or the impolicy which too often discredited even 
the noblest sovereigns of his age. From the hour 
when the child Prince of four was anointed by 
Pope Leo in Rome, down to the day when the 
Canons laid his bones in the Old Minster of 
Winchester, the career of Alfred presents to us the 
purest type of the normal relations between the 
temporal and spiritual powers a type of more 
wisdom than that of St. Henry or St. Louis, more 
truly spiritual than that of the Emperors Charles 
or Otto. To Alfred, Religion, Culture, Intelligence 
had no local limits. He was essentially European, 
even cosmopolitan, in his genius. As a boy he had 
witnessed the inauguration of the new Papal Rome 
on the Vatican. He had been at the Court of the 
great Frank King, whose daughter became his 
step-mother ; he had known all that was foremost 
in the civilisation of the century : he resolved to 
transplant it to England. His missions were his 
message to the world that Britain was no longer 
an ultima Thule, but henceforth was to march in 
the van of Progress. He was, says Freeman, 
" the spiritual and intellectual leader of his 

It is in his own writings that we come to 
love Alfred best. No ruler of men has left us 
so pellucid a revelation of his own soul. As in 

64 King Alfred 

Meditations of Aurelius and the Psalms of David, 
there is given to men the outpourings of his aspira- 
tions and his sorrows. Neither Richelieu, Crom- 
well, nor William the Silent ever recorded more 
frankly their problems and their aims. In the 
authentic writings of Alfred we are in the presence 
of one who is a teacher as much as a king who 
recalls to us Augustine and a-Kempis, or Bunyan 
and Jeremy Taylor. His Boethius served him as 
texts whereon he preached to his people profound 
sermons on the moral and spiritual life. Read his 
homily on Riches " that it is better to give than 
to receive," on the true Ruler " that power is 
never a good, unless he be good that has it," on 
the uses of Adversity "no wise man should 
desire a soft life." Few men ever had so hard a 
life with his mysterious and cruel malady " his 
thorn in the flesh " until his early death with his 
distracted and ruined kingdom his ferocious 
enemies his never-ending cares. And amidst it 
all we have the king in his silent study pouring 
out poetic thoughts upon married love, or friend- 
ship, on true happiness, or the inner life, compos- 
ing pastoral poetry, or casting into English old 
idylls from Greek epic or myth, ending with some 
magnificent Te Deum of his own composition. 

And with all this spiritual fervour, this literary 
genius, this passion for culture, how wonderful is 
the many-sided energy of the man his skill and 

As King 65 

delight as a huntsman, his love of ballad, anecdote, 
and merry tale, his love of all noble art, his zeal 
as a great builder, his ingenuity in mechanical 
contrivance, his invention for measuring time, his 
planning a new type of battleship his supreme 
foresight in refounding the desolated city of 
London. No man ever so perfectly fulfilled the 
rule " Without haste, without rest." " I have 
desired," he wrote, " to live worthily while I 
lived, and after my life to leave to the men that 
should be after me a remembrance in good works." 
And Alfred "the truth -teller" as an annalist 
calls him never uttered words more true. 

Alfred's name is almost the only one in the long 
roll of our national worthies which awakens no 
bitter, no jealous thought, which combines the 
honour of all ; Alfred represents at once the ancient 
monarchy, the army, the navy, the law, the litera- 
ture, the poetry, the art, the enterprise, the industry, 
the religion of our race. Neither Welshman, nor 
Scot, nor Irishman can feel that Alfred's memory 
has left the trace of a wound for his national pride. 
No difference of Church arises to separate any who 
would join to do Alfred honour. No saint in the 
Calendar was a more loyal and cherished member 
of the ancient faith ; and yet no Protestant can 
imagine a purer and more simple follower of the 
Gospel. Alfred was a victorious warrior whose 
victories have left no curses behind them : a king 


66 King Alfred 

whom no man ever charged with a harsh act : a 
scholar who never became a pedant : a saint who 
knew no superstition : a hero as bold as Launcelot 
as spotless as Galahad. 

No people, in ancient or modern times, ever 
had a hero-founder at once so truly historic, so 
venerable, and so supremely great. Alfred was 
more to us than the heroes in antique myths 
more than Theseus and Solon were to Athens, or 
Lycurgus to Sparta, or Romulus and Numa were 
to Rome more than St. Stephen was to Hungary, 
or Pelayo and the Cid to Spain more than Hugh 
Capet and Jeanne d'Arc were to France more 
than William the Silent was to Holland nay, 
almost as much as the Great Charles was to the 

The life-work of the Great Alfred has had a 
continuity, an organic development, a moral, intel- 
lectual, and spiritual majesty which has no parallel 
or rival amongst rulers in the annals of mankind. 
He is the father of English History, the founder 
of English prose. He gave impulse and form to 
the English Chronicle^ the oldest national record in 
modern Europe. He formed himself, or dictated, 
an organic prose literature, which was kept in 
current use until the Norman Conquest. His 
mark as a king is the creative mind the organis- 
ing genius. His whole life, as recorded in act and 
as imagined in his own ideals, has the stamp of 

As King 67 

supreme insight, practical wisdom, self-control, 
devotion to duty. His passion for poetry, his love 
for history, his dignity, his grace, his tenderness, 
his manly piety all alike are spontaneous and 
beautiful all are in harmony, none are in excess. 






Earliest years Visits to Rome Purpose of such visits His 
father's will His education Saxon poetry His 
mother's book His religious interest His desire for 
learning Musical skill His religious wars He 
becomes king. 

HE original sources of information 
from which this chapter is drawn are 
fairly numerous. Asser's Life of 
Alfred is of course the chief source ; 
but Alfred's laws, Alfred's translations, Alfred's 
will, all throw much light on his character as a 
religious man ; and the translations tell us some- 
thing of his views on education, besides what we 
learn from the record of his actions. 

Alfred's mother was Osburga ; Asser tells us 
that she was a very religious woman, noble 
alike in family and by her own disposition. His 

72 King Alfred 

father Ethelwulf gave him an early training in 
devotion to the faith of Christ. In the year 853, 
which Asser declares to have been the fifth year 
of Alfred's life though some say his eleventh 
year, which would seem more probable Ethelwulf 
sent him to Rome with an honourable escort of 
nobles and commoners. Pope Leo IV. received 
him, anointed him for king, and adopted him as 
his spiritual son. This may mean that Alfred was 
confirmed in Rome ; Ethelwerd, a descendant of 
Alfred, believed that it referred to baptism. Another 
account states that the Pope anointed him king of 
the Demetians ; but that seems out of the question, 
as he had four brothers older than himself. The 
statement may be due to the fact that some years 
after Alfred became king, the kings and people 
of that part of Wales made submission to him. 1 
Two years later Ethelwulf himself went to Rome, 
with great honour, and took with him Alfred, 
because he loved him more than his other sons. 
A long list of Ethelwulf's gifts was given by 
Anastasius in his Lives of the Popes ; they were 
very magnificent if the record is true. The father 

1 We still have, at Llantwit Major, the beautiful monument set up by one 
of the kings who thus made submission, Howel, son of Ris. The Latin is 
not as good as the decoration of the monument : n't nomine di fatris et 
spiritus santdi anc crucem kouelt properabit pro anima res fatris eus. The monu- 
ment is a singularly beautiful " wheel " cross with broad stem. It has long 
been broken in two. It lies on the ground in the remarkable western portion 
of the double church at Llantwit. 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 73 

and son remained in Rome for a year. Alfred's 
mother was, we must suppose, then dead, for 
Ethelwulf took a new wife home with him, 
Judith, the daughter of Charles the Bald. 

We have in Ethelwulf's will an interesting 
evidence of the impression made upon him by 
Rome. It is as well to state such of the provisions 
as have come down to us, for they are in them- 
selves of importance, and they introduce us to 
important facts of the time ; also, we shall then 
have something with which to compare Alfred's 
will when the time comes to deal with it. The 
provisions show the kind of religious atmosphere 
in which Alfred was brought up as a young boy. 

Ethelwulf ordered that the money he left 
behind him should be divided between his sons and 
the nobles for the good of his soul. Further, for 
the benefit of his soul, which from the first flower 
of his youth he had studied in all things to pro- 
mote, he directed that in all his hereditary 
dominions one poor man for each ten hides of 
land, either a native or a foreigner, 1 should be 
provided with meat, drink, and clothing, by his 
successors, even to the day of judgment. And 
the curiously significant condition is imported, " if 
the country should continue to be inhabited by 
men and cattle, and not become deserted " : to such 
an extent had the ravages of the Danish pirates 

1 Possibly meaning an Englishman who was not a Wessex man. 

74 King Alfred 

gone. Also, and still for the good of his soul, 
three hundred mancuses 1 were to go to Rome. 
Their destination explains to us the religious 
attraction which drew men in his time to the old 
capital of the Western world. The journey was 
dangerous ; 2 it was also expensive. 3 King Canute 
spoke very strongly about this in his time. He 
thanked God that he had been able to visit the holy 
Apostles Peter and Paul. That was the aspect in 
which the purpose of the pilgrimage to Rome pre- 
sented itself to his mind, it was to visit the tombs 
of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul. 4 But having 
thanked God for his visit, he proceeded to complain 
of the heavy demands upon " my archbishops " 
when according to custom they visited the holy see 
to receive the pall. " I complained in the presence 
of the lord Pope, and said I was much displeased 
on account of the immense sums of money which 
were demanded of them " ; it was decreed that this 
should cease. In like manner he settled with 

1 The mancus was more than the third of a pound. 

2 In 959, Alfsin, Archbishop of Canterbury, died in the Alps on his way 
for the pall, overcome by the snow and the cold. 

3 A hundred years before Alfred's time, Alcuin of York wrote to Bishop 
Remedius of Coire, to beg him to let his messenger pass through the moun- 
tains to Italy without payment of the heavy tolls. 

4 Canute's descriptive letter is given by Florence, under the year 1031. 
The argument used by Wilfrith at Whitby, and by Aldhelm in writing to 
the Britons, had been brought to bear on the king. " I learned from wise 
men that the holy Apostle Peter received of the Lord great power of binding 
and loosing, and is the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom, and thus I held it 
mightily useful to seek diligently his more special patronage with the Lord." 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 75 

the emperor and with the Frank king that the 
severity of the taxes by the way should be 
relaxed. In 688 and 728, two of Alfred's pre- 
decessors, Casdwalla and Ina, kings of Wessex, 
wishing to visit Rome, resigned their kingdom 
to carry out their wish. Bede tells us precisely 
what their purpose was. It was that they 
might visit the tombs of the blessed Apostles. 
Ethelwulf, too, makes his object clear in his will. 
One hundred mancuses were to go to Rome in 
honour of St. Peter, specially to buy oil for filling 
all the lamps of his apostolic church on Easter Eve 
and at cock-crow ; also, one hundred mancuses 
in honour of St. Paul, for the same purpose of 
providing oil for the Church of St. Paul the 
Apostle, to fill the lamps on Easter Eve and at 
cock-crow ; and one hundred mancuses for the 
universal apostolic pontiff. William of Malmes- 
bury states that these were to be annual gifts, but 
that is not supported by Asser, from whom William 
takes his account. 

It is interesting to note the agreement of these 
gifts with the facts of the time. In 847 the 
Saracens had attacked Rome. The great basilicas 
of St. Peter and St. Paul were suburban churches, 
outside the walls, and they were plundered and 
desecrated. We are accustomed to the idea of 
St. Paul's being fuori le mura, but St. Peter's, as 
we know it, lies in a district surrounded by walls. 

j6 King Alfred 

This fortified district is called the Leonine City. 
It owes its existence and its name to Leo IV., who 
was Pope when Ethelwulf sent Alfred to Rome as 
a boy. A concise account of the eight years' papacy 
of Leo IV. would state that he devoted himself to 
building the fortifications of the Leonine City, 
that St. Peter's and the Vatican might no longer be 
suburban, and to restoring the plundered and 
desecrated churches of the two Apostles. Hence 
Ethelwulf 's gifts to the two churches and the papal 
purse. If the dates and periods given by Asser are 
correct, Pope Leo died while the Saxon king and 
prince were in Rome, and was succeeded by 
Benedict III. In that case Alfred witnessed in the 
autumn of 855 the significant spectacle of an anti- 
pope stripping the Pope of his pontifical robes and 
ruling for a time in the Lateran. 

Under influences such as these Alfred was 
brought up. His brothers appear to have been 
sent out to great men of the kingdom to be edu- 
cated, but Alfred was kept always at the king's 
court, as the favourite son. He was specially 
noted for the attention with which he listened to 
the Saxon poems of earlier times, and the care 
with which he stored them up in an excellent 
memory. In after years he spoke of Aldhelm's 
English songs and hymns as the best he knew ; * and 

1 We learn this from William of Malmesbury, Aldhelm's own monas- 
tery. William reports Alfred as saying that no one in any age equalled Aldhelm 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 77 

that was saying a great deal, for the national gift 
of song, both sacred and secular, was great. It 
would be difficult to find in the early records of 
any nation a sacred song more touching and 
beautiful than the stanzas of the " Dream of the 
Holy Rood," incised in early Anglian runes upon 
the great cross-shaft at Ruth well, itself a monu- 
ment such as no other nation can show. The 
fuller form of this great song, embodying the 
earlier stanzas found on the Ruthwell cross, was 
discovered at Vercelli two generations ago, in the 
Wessex dialect of Alfred's time. That Alfred 
knew by heart this among many other English 
songs may be taken as certain. That it made 
its religious mark on his mind cannot be doubted. 

But, Asser remarks with a severe comment on 
the neglect in this respect by his parents, the boy 
Alfred had no book-learning at all. He was 
trained in all bodily exercises, and he especially 
learned and practised the art of hunting in all its 
branches with surprising success ; an art so practical 
then that Asser believed skill and good fortune in 
hunting to be " among the gifts of God, as we have 
often witnessed." But book-learning he had none. 

It was his mother who gave him his first taste 
for book-learning. If we are to accept the dates 

in poetry, for he could make a poem, compose an air, and aptly either sing or 
recite. A street-song common in Alfred's time was composed by Aldhelm. 
See also p. 8 1 . 

78 King Alfred 

and statements of Asser as on the whole correct, 
this must have been his step-mother, Judith, though 
one of the statements would refer it to Osburga's 
time. Alfred was about thirteen when the event 
occurred ; he remained illiterate, Asser says, till he 
was twelve years old or more. Those who take 
the other view make him almost four at the time 
of the following episode. There is no evidence 
that Osburga had any learning, though her love 
for Saxon ballad may be assumed. Judith, on the 
other hand, was the daughter of a house which paid 
much regard to learning and art. The beautiful 
Bibles of her father are in existence still, and we can 
well understand that she would try to win the 
affection of her step-sons by showing them treasures 
of a kind new to them. No one who has had the 
privilege of handling and examining the books in 
the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris can ever forget 
the beauty of the manuscripts which belonged to 
Charles le Chauve, Judith's father. The ivory 
covers of his Psalter and his Book of the Gospels, 
the beauty of the interior of those books, and the 
fineness of his St. Denis Bible and his Metz Bible 
(which is possibly the Bible prepared at Tours for 
Charlemagne under the care of Alcuin), abundantly 
convince us of the artistic taste of his family. 
Their evidence could be largely supplemented from 
the still-existing manuscripts of Charlemagne, Louis 
le Debonnaire, and Lothaire. 

As Religious Man and "Educationalist 79 

His mother, then, one day showed to Alfred 
and an older brother an ornamental manuscript of 
Saxon poems. To tempt them to begin to learn 
again the act of one who had not been respon- 
sible for their ignorance of book-learning she 
said she would give the book to the boy who 
could first learn to read it. Alfred was delighted 
with the beauty of the initial letter. He might 
well be delighted if it approached the beauty of 
the Lindisfarne gospels, wrought a century and a 
half before, or the very different style of beauty 
of the manuscript known as the Psalter of 
Athelstane, with its Byzantine type and Teutonic 
origin, parts of which Judith may well have seen 
and handled. The initial letter of the first Psalm 
in this Psalter would indeed have been a prize 
for which a boy might face the pain of learning to 
read, even a boy devoted to hunting. 

Alfred spoke first, though the younger. " Will 
you really give it to the one who can most quickly 
understand and recite it before you?" She, glad 
and smiling, said, " To him I will give it." He 
took it from her hand, went to his master and 
read it. When it was read, he brought it back 
and recited it. It is not at all improbable that 
Judith did not know of his power of memory, and 
that instead of learning to read it, in our sense of 
the word, he got his master to read it over till he 
knew it by heart and could point with his finger 

8o King Alfred 

to the words as he recited them. John the Deacon, 
writing in the same century, said that Pope Gregory 
the Great (others ascribe it to Gregory III.) 
invented musical notation as a memoria technica 
to remind him of tunes he had learned by ear. 

However that might be with Alfred, he had 
got the taste for written words, which never left 
him. He set to work to learn the daily course of 
the religious services of the several hours ; and 
then certain of the psalms ; and then a number 
of prayers. All this collection he had in a little 
book which he carried day and night in his 
bosom. Asser, who joined him many years later, 
often saw him use this little book to assist his 
prayers, amid all the bustle and business of a king's 
life. But still there is a hint that when this col- 
lection was made it was only to him a representa- 
tion of what he knew by heart ; for Asser says he 
could not at that time gratify his most ardent 
wish to learn liberal art, because, as Alfred told him, 
there were then no good readers in all the king- 
dom of the West Saxons. 1 Indeed, he confessed to 
Asser with many lamentations and inmost sighs 
of his heart that the greatest of all the difficulties 
and impediments of his life had been that when 
he was young, and had the capacity for learning, 

1 A marginal note in the Cotton MS. remarks that this disposes of the 
story of a school of literature at Oxford at that time. An interpolation in 
Asser credits this school with the high approval of Germanus in A.D. 430. 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 8 1 

he could not find teachers ; and when he was more 
advanced in life, he was so harassed by a disease 
unknown to all the physicians of the island, as well 
as by anxieties of sovereignty, internal and external, 
and continual invasions of pagans, that there was no 
time for reading, even his masters and writers being 
to some extent disturbed in their occupations. 
But yet he never to the end of his life ceased from 
the insatiable desire of knowledge. 

Asser makes no reference to his traditional skill 
as a harpist and minstrel. Probably it was a 
matter of course. Two hundred years before, 
Casdmon, in Northumbria, had fled the festive 
society of his labouring fellows, because he alone of 
them, when the harp was passed to him in turn, 
could not sing ; and the sense of isolation in this 
respect wrought so strongly in his mind that in 
the dreams of the night he created song, and 
next morning he remembered the dignified and 
stately creation. Aldhelm was singing in Wessex 
in Caedmon's time, sitting on the parapet of 
Malmesbury bridge, and beguiling people to sacred 
thought by the attraction of his secular lays. 1 We 
have no examples still surviving of English musical 
notation of Alfred's time ; but many examples 
exist of the next century, as, for instance, the 
manuscript written in Wessex about eighty years 
after Alfred's death for JEthelwold, Bishop of 

1 See also note on p. 76. 

82 King Alfred 

Winchester, which includes the kyric Rex Splendens, 
composed by Dunstan, who was born in 925. 
There can practically be little doubt that Alfred 
had a similar notation, consisting of very rudi- 
mentary musical notes, with guide-letters showing 
time and expression. It was, however, the cen- 
tury after his death that saw the great develop- 
ment of this principle in England. Up to that 
time the tradition of the plain -song introduced 
by Augustine had been handed down from ear to 
ear. The chief use of our musical notation was to 
guard against the loss or serious variation of the 
traditional plain -song and the more complicated 
additions made by Dunstan and other skilled 
musicians. The Wessex churchmen learned their 
rugged plain-song so well, that after the Norman 
Conquest the monks of Glastonbury suffered death 
at the hands of the Norman soldiers rather than 
abandon their insular use for the lighter graces of 
the plain-song of William of Fescamp. 

Alfred's warfare against the Danes began before 
he was king. It was in his eyes much more than 
a warfare against violent invaders of his territory ; 
it was to him, above all, a religious war. That the 
enemy were pagans, and that part of their aim was 
to obliterate Christianity, that was his chief stimulus. 
To the Danes also it was a religious war. The 
Angles and Saxons and Jutes, whose lands they 
pillaged, were their own very distant cousins ; 

A s Religious Man and Educationalist 8 3 

they had in times past worshipped the same deities 
whom now the Danes worshipped. To the Danes 
they were renegades from the one religion which 
the Danes held for truth. Asser knew well the 
king's feeling on this subject. He describes at 
some length the series of battles which brought 
Alfred into prominence, and he describes them from 
information received from Alfred. He never 
describes the combatants as English and Danes ; 
he always speaks of them as Christians and pagans. 

The first instance we have of the bent of 
Alfred's mind after he came to maturity occurs in 
connection with this feeling on his part that to 
fight the Danes was a religious work. In 871, 
just before he came to the throne, the pagan army 
fought against the Earl of Berkshire at Englefield, 
and the Christians gained the victory. Four days 
later, Alfred and his brother King Ethelred attacked 
the pagans at Reading, where they had strong 
fortifications. They cut to pieces such of the 
pagans as they found outside the fortifications ; 
but the main body of the pagans sallied forth, 
and the Christians fled. Four days after, the 
pagan army was on strong ground at ^scesdun, the 
hill of the ash, and the Christians, in shame and in- 
dignation, roused by the calamity at Reading, deter- 
mined to attack them under Ethelred and Alfred. 

Ethelred was a religious man, as Alfred was, 
but his religion took practically a different form. 

84 King Alfred 

The king prepared for the fight by hearing mass, 
and the army waited for him. The pagans did 
not wait. Time pressed. Alfred, who was second 
in command, became very anxious. The king, 
who commanded the force arrayed against the 
pagan king, was still set in prayer. He declared 
he would not depart, alive, till the priest had done, 
nor leave the divine service. Alfred was to deal 
with the two pagan jarls ; he must either retreat or 
charge without waiting for his brother. Relying 
on the divine counsels he charged, and after a long 
and severe fight, in which many of the leading 
pagans were killed, the Christians won the day. 
They strewed the whole plain of ^Escesdun with 
pagans, slaughtered in their flight. Alfred him- 
self, it should be observed, was from childhood a 
frequent visitor of holy places, for the sake of 
prayer and almsgiving. It was certainly not from 
any disregard of prayer or of God's house and the 
public worship of God that he fought while Ethel- 
red heard mass. 

That same year, after another great fight at 
Basing in which the pagans got the victory, Alfred 
became king on the death of his brother ; Ethel- 
red's son Ethelwold being too young to reign. 
A month later the pagans defeated him at Wilton. 
Eight pitched battles in one year, besides endless 
skirmishes by night and day in which Alfred and 
his chief men were engaged without rest or cessa- 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 8 5 

tion against the pagans : that is Asser's summary 
of the year which saw Alfred mount the throne of 
the West Saxons. 

The same note of a religious war is struck in 
the campaign in which Alfred finally triumphed. 
He issued forth from his stronghold in the marsh 
of Athelney to make frequent assaults upon the 
pagans. In the seventh week after Easter, 878, 
he rode to Ecgbryht's Stone (Brixton-Deverill) in 
the eastern part of the Selwood, or Great Wood, 
in British Coit Mawr, and on the third day reached 
Edington, where he fought with valour and per- 
sistence against the pagans and defeated them 
completely, killing all who were not within the 
earthworks. The survivors he hemmed in for 
fourteen days. At the end of that time the pagans 
were worn out, and begged for terms of peace. 
Their leader Guthrum proposed to become a 
Christian. It was agreed that those who would 
be baptized might settle in England ; those who 
would remain pagan must leave the island. 1 In 
the final terms, as in every phrase of Asser's story, 
it stands out as a religious war, and as a great re- 
ligious victory it ended. From that time Christian 
Danes and Christian Saxons could agree. 

1 In the form of treaty as it has come down to us, there is no mention of 
Christianity, except so far as this, that it is confirmed by an oath for them- 
selves and their " successors born and unborn who love God's mercy and ours." 
The tradition probably mixes up the simple terms of peace with the events 
that followed, and treats those events as the fulfilment of conditions. 



His early years as king Communications with Rome 
Education of his children and others His own labours 
Religious exercises Introduction of learned men 
Invention of candle-clocks Distribution of income 
Foundation of monasteries Formation of his Manual 
Embassies to foreign parts Ecclesiastical laws. 

the early and distressful days of 
Alfred's reign his position was almost 
unbearable. He would not listen to 
the appeals for help and protection 
pressed upon him by his subjects. What was 
there that he could do to help and protect them ? 
He was maturing his plans ; meanwhile, he re- 
pulsed his subjects, and paid, or seemed to pay, no 
heed to their requests. The holy man St. Neot, 
who was his relation some say his father's 
brother often told him that he would suffer great 
adversity on this account, but Alfred turned, or 
seemed to turn, a deaf ear to the reproofs of the 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 87 

man of God. His sin, Asser tells us, did not go 
unpunished ; Alfred fell into so great misery that 
sometimes none of his subjects knew where he was 
or what had become of him. If this is true, it 
is sufficiently accounted for by his grave anxieties, 
and the terrible and mysterious disease which 
seized him suddenly in the midst of his marriage 
feast in 868, three years before his accession, and 
never left him free from pain, or the threat 
of pain, from the twentieth to the forty-fourth 
year of his age. But most probably the episode 
is merely part of the legendary life of St. 
Neot, inserted after Asser's time in his Life of 

Among other cares of the first ten or eleven years 
of his reign, he turned his attention to the English 
school in Rome, and persuaded Pope Martin to 
free it from tribute and tax. This is the Pope 
who absolved Bishop Formosus from his ex- 
communication by Pope John VIII. and from 
his vow not to return to Rome ; a reversal 
which led to the trial and condemnation of the 
dead body of Formosus, mentioned on a later 

Alfred was now free to devote himself to the 
restoration of religion and learning. His own 
family management was a pattern to all. His 
youngest son, Ethelwerd, was sent to the schools 
which Alfred had by that time established. Here 

88 King Alfred 

he was taught in company with the children of 
almost all the nobility of the kingdom, and many 
that were not noble. They learned to read both 
Latin and Saxon books, and they learned to write ; 
so that by the time they were ready to practise 
the manly arts hunting and such pursuits as be- 
fitted noblemen they had become studious and 
clever in the liberal arts. His older children 
had been taught at home, and no less care- 
fully. They learned the Psalms and read Saxon 
books, especially Saxon poems ; at the time 
when Asser wrote, Edward and Ethelswith 1 
were continually in the habit of making use of 

The king himself led a laborious life. Inva- 
sions by pagans, and his constantly recurring and 
disabling bodily pain, did not prevent his carrying 
on the government with vigour. And he was full 
of other occupations. Hunting in all its branches 
he continued to practise. He taught his workers 
of gold, 2 one of whom no doubt had made in the 

1 Nothing is said of her training in needlework. The skill of the Saxon 
ladies was great. There is contemporary evidence of this in the tapestry- 
work figures of the stole of Frithestan, now in the Chapter Library at 
Durham, worked under the direction of Alfred's daughter-in-law ./Elflaed, 
between 910 and 915. A Latin inscription states that JElflted ordered it to be 
made for the pious Bishop Frithestan. The most gorgeous cope seen by Anselm 
at the Council of Bari in 1098 had been a Canterbury vestment in Canute's 

2 Frithestan's stole is a wonderful example of weaving in gold-wire, beaten 
flat like narrow tape. It is woven with selvedged openings for the insertion 
of the prophets, etc., these figures being made in tapestry-work. 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 89 

earlier years of his reign the ornament of gold and 
enamel found at Athelney in 1693 and now in the 
Bodleian, with its legend speaking of his personal 
care, Alfred had me made. He trained artificers 
of all kinds ; he trained his falconers, hawkers, and 
kennel-men. By his own mechanical inventions 
he was able to build houses beyond all precedent of 
his ancestors. He learned by heart the Saxon 
poems and made others learn them ; he recited 
Saxon books ; he alone never desisted from study- 
ing most diligently to the best of his ability. He 
attended mass and the other daily religious ser- 
vices ; he was frequent in singing psalms and in 
prayer, at the day hours and the night hours ; he 
went to the churches at night to pray secretly, 
unknown to his courtiers. He was in the habit of 
hearing the Divine Scriptures read by his own 
countrymen, or, if it so happened, in the company 
of foreigners. His bishops, too, and all ecclesias- 
tics, his earls and nobles, his officers and friends, 
were loved by him with wonderful affection ; their 
sons who were bred up in the royal household 
were as dear to him as his own ; he had them 
instructed in all good morals, and never ceased to 
teach them letters day and night. And yet he 
complained to God, and to all who were admitted 
to intimacy with him, that the Almighty had made 
him ignorant of divine wisdom and of the liberal 
arts. He was affable and pleasant to all that, we 

90 King Alfred 

may depend upon it, was the truth, and not that 
other story of morose repulse of all who sought 
him and he was curiously eager to investigate 
things unknown. 

Determined to advance learning in his kingdom 
of Wessex, he invited out of Mercia four very 
learned men of that nation. They were Werefrith, 
Bishop of Worcester, who translated the dialogues 
of Gregory and Peter into Saxon ; Plegmund, 
afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, the founder 
of the Saxon Chronicle ; and the priests Ethel- 
stan and Werewulf. Night and day, when- 
ever there was leisure, one of these four read to 
him ; so that he possessed a knowledge of every 
book, though as yet he could not himself read his 

Further, he sent to Gaul for teachers, and two 
especially are named. These were Grimbald, the 
provost of St. Omer, a good singer, prominent 
in ecclesiastical discipline and good morals, 
very learned in Holy Scripture, and John of 
Corbey, learned in all kinds of literature and 
skilled in many arts. Asser, who was of the 
greatest service to him, he persuaded to come to 
him out of South Wales ; Asser's own account of 
the bargaining is very quaint. Asser's principal 
function was, as we have seen in the case of the four 
Mercians, to read to him night and day whenever 
there was time. Alfred carried his determination 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 9 1 

to have learned men in important places so far 
that he would rather keep a bishopric vacant than 
fill it with an unlearned man. That he had the 
income of vacant bishoprics has been made a charge 
against him. An examination of the dates of 
death of bishops in Alfred's dominions and the 
dates of consecration of their successors fails to 
provide any serious ground for a charge of this 

The story of Alfred's invention of candles to 
measure the time is well known. It is not so well 
known that his desire to measure time correctly 
came from a religious motive. His determination 
was to give to God half his time, day and night. 
So far as the day was concerned, if the sun was 
visible the division could be made ; but clouds by 
day baffled him, and at night there was darkness. 
Hence the invention of the candles, which were 
measured to burn four hours each. Each candle 
was divided into twelve equal parts by lines on the 
surface. The invention of a lantern followed, for 
a reason which sets before us the discomforts of 
life in those times. The candles did not burn 
steadily and evenly, for the flame was blown about 
by the violence of the wind, which blew day and 
night without intermission through the doors and 
windows of the churches, the fissures of the divi- 
sions, the plankings, the walls, or the sides of the 
tents. Alfred made boxes for the lights, with 

92 King Alfred 

doors of white ox-horn planed so thin that 
they were like glass. There are small niches in 
some of our churches now, with signs of doors, 
probably for protecting the lights at night from 
the draught. 

And as he gave half of his time to God, so he 
gave half of his income. Ethelwulf, his father, 
had released from tribute to the king one-tenth 
part of the royal estates, 1 for the glory of God and 
his own eternal salvation. Alfred divided his 
income into two equal parts, for secular and for 
ecclesiastical expenditure. The secular half was 
divided into three equal parts. The first was for 
his soldiers and the nobles who attended at his 
court and performed divers functions ; these latter 
were in three sets, each of which performed one 
month's service in each quarter and spent two 
months at home. The next third went to the 
operatives whom he had collected from every 
nation, of great skill in every kind of construction ; 
workers in gold are specially mentioned in another 
part of Asser's description. The remaining third 
went to foreigners who visited him, whether they 
asked for money or not. So much for the secular 
half of his income. 

The second half of each year's income was 
all given to God. It was divided into four 
parts. The first part was for the poor of all 

1 This is variously stated. 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 93 

nations. 1 It was to be discreetly bestowed ; for the 
king said that, as far as could be, Pope Gregory's 
saying should be fulfilled, give not much to whom 
you should give little, nor little to whom much, nor 
something to whom nothing, nor nothing to whom 
something. The second was for the two monas- 
teries which Alfred had specially founded, at 
Athelney and Shaftesbury. The third went to his 
school, which he had studiously collected together, 
of many of the nobility of his own kingdom. The 
fourth was for all the neighbouring monasteries in 
all Saxony and Mercia, and in some years for 
monasteries in Wales, Cornwall, Gaul, Brittany, 
Northumbria, and sometimes Ireland. It is a 
remarkable fact that in this large expenditure for 
religious purposes, the purposes are at most only 
indirectly connected with the definitely spiritual 
work of ministering the Word of God and the 
Sacraments to the people at large. 

Asser is not very clear in the sequence of his 
ideas. But we gather that the king's desire to 
found monasteries was due to his own fixed pur- 
pose of holy meditation, to which he desired to 
invite others. But he could not find any one of 
his own nation, free by birth, who was willing to 
adopt the monastic life, except some who were 

1 Here as elsewhere we may suppose that the various races in these islands 
are meant. The list of countries given under the fourth head is probably a 
sufficient guide to the meaning of the phrase. 

94 King Alfred 

mere children, too young to choose between good 
and evil. The love of the monastic life, once so 
strong in England, had died out. Asser theorises 
as to the reasons for this, and he produces two 
which seem to be mutually destructive : it was 
either because of the constant invasions by sea and 
land, or because people abounded in riches of every 
kind and so despised the monastic life. He had 
to get an old Saxon to act as Abbot of his new 
foundation of Athelney ; and then some priests 
and deacons from across the seas ; and then, as he 
had not nearly plenty of inmates, he got as many 
Gauls as he possibly could, including children, to 
be reared to the monastic life. Asser had himself 
seen a lad of pagan birth who was educated there, 
and who was by no means the hindmost of them 

The formation of King Alfred's Manual, which 
is not known to exist, may best be told something 
as Asser tells it. He says that it was in 887 or 
888 that the king first formed the desire to inter- 
pret passages of Scripture to those who did not 
know Latin. 

" We were talking together one day, and I read 
to him an extract from a certain book. He heard 
it with both his ears. He brought out his book 
with the daily courses and psalms and the prayers 
he had read in his youth, and commanded me to 
write there the quotation. I turned it over, and 

As Religious Man and 'Educationalist 95 

found it very nearly full. After some delay I 
said, had I not better find another sheet on which 
this might be entered apart ; for perhaps some 
other quotation might occur, and if so we should 
be glad to have them kept together ? * Your plan 
is good,' he said. So I made haste and got a sheet 
and wrote the quotation. That same day no less 
than three other passages pleased him ; and from 
that time we talked daily and wrote such things as 
pleased him till at last it was full, for he went on 
unceasingly collecting many flowers of Divine 
Scriptures. When the first quotation was copied 
onto the sheet, he at once became anxious to read 
and interpret it in Saxon, and to teach others. 
The book grew till it became almost as large as a 
Psalter. He called it his Manual, because he kept 
it carefully at hand day and night, and found, as 
he told me, no small consolation therein." 

It was not to Rome only that Alfred sent mes- 
sengers and gifts. Asser speaks, with Celtic 
breadth, of daily embassies sent to foreign nations, 
from the Tyrrhenian sea to the farthest end of 
Ireland. 1 The English Chronicle goes further. 
Alfred vowed, it is said, when they were set against 

1 A mediaeval editor proposes to read Hiberiae instead of Hiberniae, Spain 
instead of Ireland. But the English Chronicle tells of a visit to Alfred in 
891 of three Scots, that is, Irishmen, smitten with the desire to wander. A 
later Chronicle assigns their departure from their own land to the death of 
their favourite teacher Swifneh. He was known as the most wise, or most 
skilled, of the Scots, and the English Chronicle mentions his death. His 

96 King Alfred 

the enemy in London, to send embassies to St. 
Thomas and St. Bartholomew. The Chronicle, 
under the year 883, tells us that he sent gifts to 
India. William of Malmesbury informs us that 
Sigelm, Bishop of Sherborne, was sent as ambas- 
sador with the gifts to St. Thomas, and that he 
prosperously penetrated into India. Thus, Dean 
Hook remarks, the first intercourse between Eng- 
land and Hindustan consisted of this interchange 
of Christian feeling. It is, however, a little curious 
that Asser never mentions India, nor did Alfred 
interpolate any mention of his embassy when trans- 
lating Orosius for his English people. Asser 
definitely mentions Judea, telling us that he had 
seen letters to Alfred which came with presents 
from Abel the Patriarch of Jerusalem. It may be 
worth mention that other MSS. of the English 
Chronicle read ludia and ludea instead of India. 
Still, the fact of the journey of Alfred's messengers 
to some distant part which then bore the name of 
India, seems to be accepted on all hands. There 
is no very violent improbability about it. Chris- 
tian missionaries from Persia had reached India 
and China more than three centuries before this, 
two of them bringing the silk-worm to the Greek 
empire in Justinian's reign, about 550. The 

beautiful Celtic grave slab is at Clonmacnoise. The close connection which 
existed between the early Anglo-Saxons and the Irish schools of learning had 
now ceased. 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 97 

Egyptian merchant - monk Cosmas wrote his 
Christian Topography at that date. He found 
Nestorian Christians in Ceylon and Malabar, 
but the king and people of Ceylon were still 

Alfred's Ecclesiastical Laws have a long preface, 
apparently prepared by himself. It is an interest- 
ing piece of argument. First he gives the Ten 
Commandments in Saxon. Writers inform us that 
he omits the Second Commandment, in accord- 
ance with the evil practice which had already made 
considerable progress then ; but probably these 
writers did not read to the end, for Alfred's Tenth 
Commandment is, " Thou shalt not make to thyself 
golden gods nor silvern." Then he points out that 
our Saviour, Christ, said He came not to break 
nor forbid these Commandments, but with all good 
to increase them, and mercy and humility He taught. 
Then he quotes the decisions of the church at 
Jerusalem as to the tenderness of the application 
of the law to the Gentile converts. When the 
English race became Christian, he proceeds, they 
held synods of holy bishops and great and wise 
men. They then ordained, out of that mercy 
which Christ had taught, that secular lords, by 
the synod's leave, might without sin take for 
almost every misdeed, for the first offence, the 
money fine ordained by the synod. They then 
in many synods ordained a fine for many human 


98 King Alfred 

misdeeds, and in many synod-books they wrote, at 
one place one doom, at another another. 

The one offence to which they dared not assign 
any mercy, that is, any hot, or money fine, was 
treason to a lord ; because God Almighty adjudged 
no mercy to those who despised Him, nor did 
Christ, the Son of God, adjudge any to him who 
sold Him to death, and He commanded that a 
lord should be loved as -Himself. 

This is a very interesting explanation of the 
Saxon system of money payments for offences of 
almost every description. It is not altogether 
unlike in principle to the modern magistrate-law 
that a dog has his first bite free. That application 
of the principle found no favour with King Alfred, 
in whose days dogs were great and dangerous 
beasts. If a dog tear or bite a man, for the first 
misdeed, 6s. ; for the second, I2s. ; for the third, 
303. If the dog do more misdeeds, the owner is 
to go on paying, or must repudiate the dog. 

" These many dooms I, Alfred the king, gathered 
together ; and commanded many to be written of 
those our forefathers held which to me seemed 
good ; and many of those which seemed to me 
not good, I rejected them by the counsel of my 
wise men. I durst not venture to set down much 
of my own, for it was unknown to me what of it 
would please those who should come after us." 

Three characteristic dooms may be quoted. 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 99 

" He who steals on Sunday, or at Christmas or 
Easter, or on Holy Thursday, 1 or on Rogation 
days, 2 or during Lent, shall pay a twofold hot." 
u If a man go to the church, and reveal an offence 
not revealed, and confess himself in God's name, 
be it half forgiven." For holidays, " To all free- 
men, 1 2 days at Yule, and the day on which Christ 
overcame the devil, and the commemoration day 
of St. Gregory, and 7 days before Easter and 
7 after, and one day at St. Peter's tide, and 
one day at St. Paul's tide, and in harvest the 
whole week before St. Mary-mass, and one day at 
the celebration of All Hallows, and the 4 
Wednesdays in Ember weeks," forty-two days in 
all, making, with the addition of Sundays, just a 
quarter of the whole year. 

1 We have lost the sense of paganism in the names of our days, but it 
conies out quaintly in the Saxon form, on thone Halgan Thunres doeg. 

2 Still called in Yorkshire, as in Alfred's Ecclesiastical Law, gang-days. 



His translations Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English 
Race The Pastoral Care State of learning in Wessex, 
Mercia, and Northumbria Ideal of a bishop's life 
Orosius Boethius Alfred's religious opinions John 
the Scot Alfred's will Hyde Abbey State of Rome 
Religious references Religious bequests Slaves. 

^ fiMx HE general drift of Alfred's opinion as 
^^P^^ to the sort of learning most needed 
by his people is to be gathered from 
his choice of books to be put before 
them in their native language. These were four. 
For general history, and for history and geography 
relating to their own race on the continent of 
Europe, he chose Orosius : for mental study, the 
Consolation of Boethius : for realisation of the 
true principles of the life and work of religion, 
the Pastoral Care : for the Church history of 
the English people, of course the great and price- 
less book of the Venerable Bede. Of this last we 
need say nothing. Nor need we dwell upon the 


As Religious Man and "Educationalist i o i 

fact that Alfred may be said to have created the 
continuity of early English history by his establish- 
ment of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under Pleg- 

The preface to Alfred's translation into English 
from the Latin of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care, 
a treatise on the life and work of a bishop, gives 
us so clear an insight into the king's mind, and 
such valuable information as to the state of learn- 
ing in his time, that it deserves to be printed in 
full. Three of the copies of which the king 
speaks are in existence, one addressed to Arch- 
bishop Plegmund of Canterbury, one to Bishop 
Wulfsige of Sherborne, and the third to Bishop 
Werefrith of Worcester. 


King Alfred greets Bishop Wasrferth with loving 
words and with friendship. I let it be known to thee 
that it has very often come into my mind, what wise men 
there formerly were throughout England, both of sacred 
and secular orders ; and how happy times there were then 
throughout England ; and how the kings who had power 
over the nation in those days obeyed God and his minis- 
ters ; and they preserved peace, morality, and order at 
home, and at the same time enlarged their territory 
abroad ; and how they prospered both with war and with 
wisdom j and also the sacred orders how zealous they 
were both in teaching and learning, and in all the services 
they owed to God ; and how foreigners came to this land 

IO2 King Alfred 

in search of wisdom and instruction, and how we should 
now have to get teachers from abroad if we were to have 
them. So general was the decay in England that there 
were very few on this side of the Hum her who could under- 
stand their rituals in English, or translate a letter from 
Latin into English ; and I believe that there were not 
many beyond the Humber. There were so few of them 
that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames 
when I came to the throne. Thanks be to God Almighty 
that we have any teachers among us now. And there- 
fore I command thee to do as I believe thou art willing, 
to disengage thyself from worldly matters as often as may 
be, that thou mayest apply the wisdom which God has 
given thee wherever thou canst. 1 Consider what punish- 
ments would come upon us on account of this world, if 
we neither loved wisdom ourselves nor suffered other men 
to obtain it : we should love the name only of Christian, 
and very few of the virtues. When I considered all this 
I remembered also how I saw in my own early days, be- 
fore all had been ravaged and burnt, how the churches 
throughout the whole of England stood filled with 
treasures and books, and there was also a great multitude 
of God's servants. But they had very little knowledge 
of the books, for they could not understand anything of 
them because they were not written in their own 
language. As if they had said : "Our forefathers, who 
formerly held these places, loved wisdom, and through 
it they obtained wealth and bequeathed it to us. In this 
we can still see their tracks, but we cannot follow them, 

1 Even of the famous scholar Aldhelm, 200 years before, it was said that 
when he became bishop he was absorbed, as the manner of bishops was, in 
the secular cares of his position. 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 103 

and therefore we have lost both the wealth and the 
wisdom, because we would not incline our hearts after 
their example." When I remembered all this, I won- 
dered extremely that the good and wise men who were 
formerly all over England, and had perfectly learnt all the 
books, did not wish to translate them into their own lan- 
guage. But again I soon answered myself and said : 
They did not think that men would ever be so careless, 
and that learning would thus decay ; so they abstained 
from translating, and they hoped that wisdom in this land 
would increase, and our knowledge of languages. Then 
I remembered how the law was first known in Hebrew, 
and again, when the Greeks had learnt it, they translated 
the whole of it into their own language, and all other 
books besides. And again, the Romans, when they had 
learnt it, they translated the whole of it through learned 
interpreters into their own language. And also all other 
Christian nations translated parts of it into their own 
languages. Therefore it seems better to me, if ye think 
so, for us also to translate some books which are most 
needful for all men to know into the language which we can 
all understand. And I would have you do as we very easily 
can if we have tranquillity enough, that is, set all the 
youth now in England of free men, who are rich enough 
to be able to devote themselves to it, to learn, as long as 
they are not old enough for other occupations, until they 
are well able to read English writing. And let those be 
afterwards taught more in the Latin language who are 
to continue learning and be promoted to a higher rank. 
When I remembered how the knowledge of Latin had 
formerly decayed throughout England, and yet many 
could read English writing, I began, among other various 
and manifold troubles of this kingdom, to translate into 

1 04 King Alfred 

English the book which is called in Latin Pastoralis^ 
and in English Shepherd's Book, sometimes word for word 
and sometimes according to the sense, as I had learnt it 
from Plegmund my archbishop, and Asser my bishop, 
and Grimbold my mass -priest, and John my mass- 
priest. 1 And when I had learnt it as I could best under- 
stand it and as I could most clearly interpret it, I translated 
it into English ; and I will send a copy to every bishopric 
in my kingdom ; and on each there is a [clasp and chain] 2 
worth fifty mancuses. And I command in God's name 
that no man take the [clasp] from the book or the book 
from the minster. It is uncertain how long there may 
be such learned bishops as, thanks be to God, there now 
are nearly everywhere ; therefore I wish these books 
always to remain in their place, unless the bishop wish to 
take them with him, or they be lent out anywhere, or 
any one make a copy from them. 

Then the book itself is made to speak, as the 
Cross speaks in the early Anglian Dream of the 
Holy Rood : 

This message Augustine over the salt sea brought 
from the south to the islanders, as the Lord's champion 
had formerly indited it, the Pope of Rome. The wise 
Gregorius was versed in many true doctrines through the 
wisdom of his mind, his hoard of studious thoughts. For 
he gained over most of mankind to the Guardian of 

1 His translation of this book is much closer to the original than is the 
case with his History (Becle), Geography (Orosius), and Philosophy 

2 Perhaps a desk and pointer. See Professor Earle's remarks in this 




(Cot Ionian Library] 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 105 

heaven, best of Romans, wisest of men, most gloriously 
famous. Afterwards King Alfred brought every word 
of me into English, and sent me to his scribes south and 
north ; ordered more such to be brought to him, that he 
might send them to his bishops, for some of them needed 
it, who knew but little Latin. 

It is not our business here to consider the 
contents of Pope Gregory's treatise on the shep- 
herding of the people. But the headings of 
two or three of the sixty-five chapters will show 
what the attraction for Alfred's mind was. The 
first chapter argues " that unlearned men are not 
to presume to undertake teaching." To prevent 
this was a purpose with Alfred ; he faced obloquy, 
it is said, rather than fill bishoprics with un- 
learned men. The second chapter forbids even 
learned men to undertake to teach if they are not 
ready to live in accordance with their own precepts. 
The third and fourth chapters no doubt appealed 
to himself as a secular governor, though they 
related to spiritual government, "how he who 
governs must despise all hardships, and how afraid 
he must be of every luxury," and " how often the 
occupations of power and government distract the 
mind of the ruler." The sixty-fifth chapter brings 
the whole to a conclusion with an argument 
thoroughly after Alfred's own heart : " When any 
one has performed all the duties of his pastoral 
charge, let him then consider and understand his 

106 King Alfred 

own self, lest either his exemplary life or his 
successful teaching puff him up." 

In his translation of the history and geography 
of Orosius he does not interpolate information 
where we might not unnaturally have expected 
him to do so. Of his large and valuable interpo- 
lations of a geographical character, and in regard 
to the history of the Teutonic races, mention is 
no doubt made in another chapter. In the sixth 
book, to mention two cases where Orosius writes 
of the times of Constantius and Constantine, and 
makes references to Britain, he does not speak of 
Christianity here, and Alfred does not add any- 
thing. Orosius speaks of many martyrs under 
Diocletian, not localising any. Again, Alfred does 
not add anything. Two quaint phrases the king 
employs : " In those days Arius the mass-priest 
was in error with regard to the right faith " ; 
" Constantine was the first emperor who ordered 
churches to be built, and locked up the devil's 

It is not to be wondered at that Alfred deter- 
mined to translate into English the Consolation 
of Boethius, and his interpolations show how dear 
the book was to his heart and to his reason. King 
and people alike had gone through much trial and 
suffering, and such happiness and prosperity as 
they had was at best very precarious. The book 
of Consolation which Boethius wrote in the sad 

A s Religious Man and Educationalist 1 07 

days when all his great prosperity had passed from 
him, and he waited in chains for the last fatal word 
of the tyrant, was well suited for men and women 
situated as the English then were. Boethius 
himself, who was executed in 524, was both a very 
learned Christian and a deeply -read student of 
classical philosophy. His Consolations are taken 
entirely from philosophy, but they have the Chris- 
tian spirit. They thus supplement the help which 
the Christian religion gives to those in anxiety, and 
put into the troubled mind fresh and useful trains 
of thought. This is probably one main reason for 
the attraction which the book had in the Middle 
Ages, and we cannot doubt that Alfred had this in 
view in giving it to his people. Why he did not 
at the same time have the New Testament trans- 
lated into English is not clear, for he himself 
pointed out, in his Preface to the Pastoral Care, 
that the law was first given in Hebrew, and then 
necessarily translated into Greek, and Latin, and 
the languages of the various nations which em- 
braced Christianity. William of Malmesbury tells 
us that the king did as a matter of fact set about 
translating the Psalter, but died before the first 
part was done. 

Besides the hint which his translation of Boe- 
thius gives, it is on another account probable that 
Alfred took a broad view of religious questions. 
If the evidence is to be accepted as sufficient, 

io8 King Alfred 

he was a patron of Johannes Scotus Erigena. 
John the Scot, that is, as we should now say, the 
Irishman, had made the Continent too hot to hold 
him by the breadth of his religious views. He 
refused to distinguish religion from philosophy, an 
attitude of mind which may have specially influ- 
enced Alfred, who had probably known him as a 
boy at the court of Charles the Bald, where John 
acted as tutor to Judith. He had maintained, too, 
that authority, when it is not confirmed by reason, 
is of no value. He had made a determined stand 
against the new and materialistic teaching on the 
Real Presence, known as transubstantiation. He 
found a refuge at the court of Alfred. This can 
scarcely have meant less than that Alfred, to some 
extent at least, shared his opinions ; and if that was 
so, we see an additional reason for Alfred's admira- 
tion of Boethius, and we have some explanation of 
the character of the provisions of the will by which 
the king disposed of his property. 

In those days, and in days earlier still, to teach 
an unpopular opinion was a dangerous thing. Great 
violence was not unknown in schools of learning. 
Even in modern times we hear a good deal of the 
violence of students in Paris and in other univer- 
sities of the Continent. When Archbishop Theo- 
dore came over to England in 664 and began to 
teach, there were very sharp passages at arms 
between the teacher and the Irish students who 

As Religious Man and Educationalist 1 09 

attended his lectures. Aldhelm was a student at 
Canterbury at the time, and he describes one of 
these encounters, where the Irish students baited 
their lecturer, Archbishop though he was. The 
old student and lecturer of the University of 
Athens was more than a match for them. " He 
treated them," Aldhelm wrote to a friend, " as the 
truculent boar treats the Molossian hounds. He 
tore them with the tusk of grammar, and shot them 
with the deep and sharp syllogisms of chronography, 
till they cast away their weapons and hurriedly 
fled to the recesses of their dens." In Wessex the 
students went further still. One John almost 
certainly not the famous John of whom we are 
speaking, though mediaeval writers took him to be 
the same so irritated the students of the great 
school of Malmesbury, that they set on him with 
the sharp iron styles of the time, which represented 
our modern pens, and inflicted wounds of which he 
died. William of Malmesbury gives the epitaph 
of this John from a tomb on the left side of the 
altar at Malmesbury ; he is described as the holy 
sophist John, and is said to have been a martyr. 
William does not absolutely identify him with 
Johannes Erigena, but he describes him as Johannes 
Scottus, and says that he had been at the court of 
Charles the Bald, and was attracted by the muni- 
ficence of Alfred. We may fairly say that William 
believed their John to be the Erigena, and we may 

1 1 o King Alfred 

almost certainly say that in that belief he was 

John the Erin-born is usually said to have died 
about 886. There is thus no difficulty on the 
score of dates in the way of his being at Alfred's 
court. He must have been an oldish man, for 
he was a prominent controversialist as early as 

Alfred's will is on all accounts a document of 
very great interest. We have noticed already the 
provisions of his father's will, so far as they have 
been preserved for us, and with these we cannot 
but contrast the corresponding parts of Alfred's 
disposition of his property. Many details of the 
will we must for our present purpose pass by, 
notwithstanding their general importance : they 
are no doubt dealt with in another chapter. 

Alfred's will exists in an Anglo-Saxon form and 
in a Latin form. It is preserved in the Register 
of Newminster, which Alfred founded at Win- 
chester. This institution was afterwards moved 
to Hyde. The will was copied into the Register 
now known as the Register of Hyde Abbey, about 
the years 1028-1032. 

Ethelwulf had bequeathed considerable sums to 
the Church of St. Peter and the Church of St. Paul 
at Rome, and to the Pope. Alfred had sent 
presents to Rome. From 883 to 890 there are four 
records of West Saxon gifts. But after 890 there 

A s Religious Man and Educationalist 1 1 1 

is no record, and in Alfred's will no mention is 
made of the chief city of the Western world or of 
the spiritual head of the Church of the West. One 
explanation may be that at his death the sad period 
had already begun which makes men of all Christian 
creeds hang their heads with shame that such things 
could be. King Alfred's court was unique among 
secular courts in its purity and order ; the papal 
court had entered upon one of those phases in its 
existence where it has stood out prominently among 
the most impure and disorderly spots on the face 
of the known earth. It is enough, for any one 
who knows the meaning of the references, to glance 
at the table of contents of a Church history for the 
years 896 and 897 : "Death of Pope Formosus ; 
Pope Boniface VII. ; trial and condemnation of 
the body of Formosus by Pope Stephen VI. ; 
Pope Stephen strangled ; Pope Romanus ; Pope 
Theodorus II. ; Pope John IX. ; Pope Sergius 
IV. ; Marquisate of Tusculum ; Theodora and 
Marozia." We can well understand that not all 
Alfred's reverence for the place where lay the 
bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul could overcome 
the effect of a record so grievous as that. 

Turning to those parts of Alfred's will which 
have a directly religious bearing, it is impossible 
not to be struck by the obliqueness of the religious 
references. Of his reliance on divine help and his 
trust in divine assistance there is no doubt. He 

112 King Alfred 

clearly regarded these as powers actually at work 
in the world, and as the one only means by which 
the actions of those who should follow him might 
be rightly guided. It is by God's support that he 
trusts his will may be carried out. He is king 
by God's grace. He has considered of his soul's 
health, and of the inheritance which God and his 
ancestors did give ; but he is reserved and allusive 
where other men of the time were detailed and 
definite. The air of reserve would almost seem to 
indicate that the teaching of John the Erin-born, 
while it had not in the least shaken the confidence 
of his faith and trust, had seriously indisposed him 
to speak in confident detail of the relations of 
man's service to God's help. " Let them distribute, 
for me and for my father and for the friends that 
he interceded for and I intercede for, 200 pounds ; 
50 to the mass-priests all over my kingdom, 50 to 
the poor servants of God, 50 to the distressed 
poor, 50 to the church where I shall rest." " And 
I will that they do restore to the families at 
Domersham their land-deeds and their liberty to 
choose any man they will [i.e. to continue to live 
under that lord or to choose another], for me and 
for ^Iflaed [his eldest daughter] and for the friends 
that she did intercede for and I do intercede for." 
" And Jet them also seek with a living price * for 

1 The words in the Saxon will are sec man eac on cwicum ceape , in the 
Latin will, imploretur deus wventi fretio. 

As Religious Man and 'Educationalist 1 1 3 

my soul's health so far as may be * and as is fitting 
and as ye to give me shall be disposed." It has 
been clearly shown that on cwicum ceape was a 
recognised phrase for "with live stock." The 
reserve of Alfred's language in this, the most im- 
portant part of his will in mediaeval opinion, is 
worthy of note. Indeed, the absence of definite 
words which might have been expected is 
so marked that in another Latin copy, a very 
incorrect translation of part of the Anglo- 
Saxon will, they are added, but curiously 
enough are connected solely with the restora- 
tion of the land-books to the people at Domer- 
sham. The freeing of slaves was a religious 
work. It will be seen that as a religious work 
Alfred himself regarded it. " I beseech in God's 
name and in the name of His Saints that no one 
of my relations or heirs obstruct the freedom of 
those whom I have redeemed. The West-Saxon 
Witan have pronounced it lawful that I may leave 
them free or bond as I will. But I, for God's love 
and for my soul's advantage, will that they be 
master of their freedom and of their will ; and in 
the name of the living God I bid that none dis- 
turb them, neither by money exaction nor by any 
manner of means." 

It is a well-known fact that the Church set 
before men the duty of giving slaves their freedom. 

1 Saxon, tiva hit beon maege ; Latin, quantum fieri foait. 

1 1 4 King Alfred 

Late in the seventh century, Bishop Wilfrith 
released 250 men and women whom he found 
attached as slaves to his estate of Selsey ; and 
Archbishop Theodore denied Christian burial to 
the kidnapper, and prohibited the sale of children 
by their parents after the age of seven. In the 
year 816, the archbishop and bishops of the 
southern province, thirteen in number, met in 
council at Celchyth (Chelsea), and bound them- 
selves by canon to free at their death every 
Englishman, who, during their tenure of the lands 
of the bishoprics, had become a slave, the usual 
causes of enslavement in time of peace being 
poverty or crime. There is a canon of that 
council, directed against the abstraction of monas- 
tic charters and lists of landed property, which has 
a very modern sound about its title, " that monas- 
teries be not deprived of their telligraphs." 

We cannot close this chapter better than with 
Alfred's own right royal words. " I can assert 
this in all truth, that during the whole course of 
my existence I have always striven to live in a 
becoming manner, and at my death to leave to those 
who follow me a worthy memorial in my works." 


F all the aspects of Alfred's many-sided 
life there is none more interesting, 
yet more baffling, than his military 
career. We know its outlines : his 
lot fell in the direst time of storm and stress that 
had ever come upon the English ; he weathered 
the tempest which had so sorely buffeted his father 
and his brothers, and steered the ship of the state 
into calmer waters. We have a not inconsider- 
able bulk of records concerning his campaigns, 
yet again and again the why and the wherefore of 
triumph and defeat elude us. The all-important 
details which would explain why things went ill in 
872 and well in 878, why Basing saw a disaster and 
Buttington a victory, are withheld. The un- 
wearied king marches east and marches west, now 
with a large army, now with a mere handful of 
men ; he reaches his foes and brings them to bay ; 
then " the heathen are put to flight," or, on the 
other hand, " after great slaughter on both sides 
the Danes hold possession of the place of battle " ; 

1 1 8 King Alfred 

but whether superior tactics, or superior numbers, 
or superior endurance won the day is concealed 
from us. It is seldom that even the most vague 
and general features of the fight are narrated : of 
really important engagements like Ashdown or 
Eddington, or the struggle on the Lea, we know 
only just enough to make us desire to know 

Fortunately we are able to make out a good 
deal more about the strategy than about the tactics 
of Alfred's campaigns. His itineraries are gener- 
ally preserved, and the natural features of hill and 
vale and marsh and wood can easily be ascertained. 
Similarly there is a certain amount to be recovered 
concerning his work as a military organiser, though 
here our authorities give us hints rather than facts, 
and make it very hard to disentangle his reforms 
from those of his worthy successor, Edward the 

When Alfred first looked upon the face of war, 
the English had been already engaged for some 
seventy years in their great struggle to drive off 
the Vikings, and were prospering little in the at- 
tempt. The period during which the invaders 
had contented themselves with sporadic descents on 
the towns and monasteries hard by the sea, was 
long over. They were now cutting their way deep 
into England from every side, and prolonging 
their stay more and more every year. While Alfred 

A s Warrior 1 1 9 

was still a child by his mother's knee, a yet more 
threatening stage had been reached : instead of 
returning to their homes by the Danish and Nor- 
wegian fiords, when autumn drew to an end, the 
enemy had begun to fortify some ness or island by 
the English shore, and to abide there all the winter 
months. The period of objectless plunder was 
drawing near its end, and that of settlement and 
conquest was approaching. 

It is not hard to make out the main causes of 
the ineffectiveness of the resistance which the Eng- 
lish kingdoms offered to the invader ; they were 
much the same as those which were to be seen in 
the Prankish empire on the other side of the British 
Channel the want of any central organisation for 
combined defence the want of any large bodies 
of professional fighting-men, fully equipped with 
the best arms of the day the scarcity of fortified 
places the non-existence of a war -fleet. In 
respect of the first of these matters the English 
were in some ways more unfortunate, in others 
happier, than the Franks. On the Continent the 
Vikings were confronted by a vast empire which 
was beginning to drop to pieces from its own 
weight ; the realm of Charlemagne would have 
split up into national kingdoms even if there had 
been no invaders from outside to hasten the 
process. Particularism and heritage - partition 
were the order of the day it was impossible to 

1 20 King Alfred 

hope that the numerous descendants of the great 
Carling house would loyally aid each other against 
the external enemy, or that their heterogeneous 
subjects would care much for the woes of their 
neighbours. In England, on the other hand, 
the national evolution of the times was tending 
towards union. Even before the effects of the 
Danish invasions began to be felt, the states of the 
Heptarchy were already beginning to draw together 
into larger units. Offa the Mercian (755-794) 
had been suzerain of all England in a far truer 
sense than any of the early " Bretwalda " kings 
that were before him. He had annexed kingdoms 
like Kent, Essex, East Anglia, instead of merely 
making their monarchs do him homage. These 
states rose again for a short space at his death; 
but when Egbert won the supremacy for Wessex a 
few years later, the same tendency was apparent : 
that great warrior was able to incorporate the old 
realms of Kent and Sussex with his ancestral 
dominions, nor did they ever again free themselves 
from dependence on the house of Cerdic. It was 
clear that England was tending to group itself into 
no more than three or four large states : the smaller 
tribal nationalities were beginning to be absorbed 
in the greater. Thus, though Egbert and his suc- 
cessor Ethelwulf were kings south of Thames alone, 
and only enjoyed a precarious suzerainty north of 
it, yet there was some hope for the future. The 

As Warrior 121 

fatal disruptive tendencies visible among the Franks 
were not paralleled on this side of the Channel. 

In the second point wherein the old Christian 
kingdoms were at a disadvantage when struggling 
with the Dane the want of a large and well-armed 
body of trained fighting-men England was pro- 
bably .in a worse condition than her continental 
neighbour. Both possessed two classes of warriors 
a small body of wealthy landed vassals of the 
king, bound to him by special oaths of allegiance, 
and the general levy of the country-side, torn from 
the plough when necessity demanded. The former 
were more or less professional warriors : the Eng- 
lish " gfsithcund m&n holding land," if he neglected 
his lord's summons to join the host, forfeited his 
estate and paid a crushing fine as well : the ordinary 
peasant, the "ceorlish man," only suffered pecuniary 
punishment for the same offence. The gesiths, or 
thegns, as they were now beginning to be called, 
a wealthy, well-armoured military class, were the 
core of the national host. The rude masses of the 
half-armed country folk were a far less efficient 
part of the military forces of the realm. But in 
England the thegnhood does not appear in the 
ninth century to have reached nearly the same stage 
of relative importance as had the Prankish vassals. 
They would seem to have been less numerous in 
proportion to the size of the states, and less power- 
ful in the realm. As a combatant body, too, they 

122 King Alfred 

were inferior, for the Franks had taken to fighting 
on horseback, and every vassal came to the host 
not only well armed, but well mounted. The 
English were still fighting on foot like their an- 
cestors : they did not, indeed, learn cavalry service 
till the eleventh century. In contending with an 
active and rapidly moving enemy like the Dane, 
this want of horsemen was a terrible drawback to 
the English host. 

The third source of weakness which we have 
named the scarcity of well-fortified strongholds 
was felt both on this and on the other side of the 
Channel. Neither Frank nor Anglo-Saxon had 
made any systematic attempt to keep up the great 
fortresses which they had inherited from the 
Romans. But here again the English were at a 
greater disadvantage than their continental neigh- 
bours. They had neglected scientific fortification 
even more than the Franks. They mostly dwelt in 
open towns and villages ; even the ancient Roman 
walls of great cities like London and York had 
been allowed to fall into decay. At most they 
surrounded important positions with a ditch and a 
stockade ; of the building of an actual wall we 
hear only at one place, the Northumbrian capital 
of Bamborough. The Franks, among whom city 
life was far more important than in England, seem 
to have done somewhat more in the way of keep- 
ing up the old Roman enceintes of their great 

As Warrior 123 

towns. They had also taken of late to the build- 
ing of strongholds destined to hold down conquered 
territory. Charlemagne had warred down the 
obstinate Saxons mainly by rearing line after line of 
burgs among their heaths and forests. No great 
English king had yet tried to maintain his control 
over his vassal-states by such an expedient. Even 
if the Prankish burgs were but concentric rings of 
ditch, mound, and palisade, they were by no means 
lacking in importance in the day of danger. 

In the matter of naval defence, on the other 
hand, there was more hope for England than for 
her continental neighbours. The Saxons and 
Angles had always been seafarers : the Franks had 
never taken to the water. Neither of the nations 
possessed any regular war-fleet, but in the one the 
national genius was favourable to its creation ; in 
the other it was not. We hear, indeed, long before 
Alfred's day, of intermittent attempts of English 
kings to do something on the seas. The most 
notable was the assault on Ireland which the North- 
umbrian Ecgfrith made in 684. In the days of 
Alfred's own father, Ethelwulf, there was at least 
one endeavour to meet the Danes upon the water : 
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how the Kentish 
alderman Ealhere " fought in ships " at Sand- 
wich, and took nine ships of the heathen, and 
put the rest to flight" (851). It is possible that 
the same chief was engaged in a second naval 

1 24 King Alfred 

battle two years later, for in an unsuccessful attempt 
which he made to turn the Vikings out of Thanet 
" there was much slaughter and many men drowned 
upon both sides." Thanet being then separated 
from the Kentish mainland by a broad estuary, it 
is conceivable that there was some fighting on ship- 
board on this occasion also. 

But any small naval resources which England 
possessed in the second half of the ninth century 
seemed hopelessly inadequate to impose the least 
check on the Danes. The invaders came in squad- 
rons numbered by the hundred vessels. Even 
after Alfred had begun to take in hand a scheme 
for building a regular fleet, the English ships were 
only counted in tens or scores. In our own days a 
power possessing some few vessels, and expecting 
invasion, would turn them to use by setting them 
to watch for the enemy, discover him, and give 
early knowledge of his approach, or to follow his 
course and divine his intentions. But such tactics 
demand vessels that can keep the sea for long 
spaces of time and in any weather. Neither English 
nor Danish galleys were suited for such work : 
they preferred coasting voyages, and touched the 
shore frequently, creeping from cape to cape and 
from isle to isle. The only voyage across a broad 
and open sea was that which was made when a 
Viking fleet ran straight across from the south- 
western cape of Norway instead of coasting along 

As Warrior 125 

the Danish and Frisian shore. The Scandinavians 
were daring seamen, but their skill and pluck was 
shown rather by the way in which they felt their 
way along dangerous, rock-bound coasts, like those 
of the Hebrides or Western Ireland, than by pass- 
ages across the high seas. For such crossings 
they waited for long spells of fine weather, in order 
to run the least possible risk. This was only 
natural, for their ships were but long, light, un- 
decked vessels, depending mainly on their twelve 
or sixteen oars a side, and only using their sails 
when the wind set fair. To face a really serious 
Atlantic storm they were wholly unfitted, and even 
the rough weather of the Channel could be too 
much for them. In 877 a whole fleet of a hundred 
and twenty ships was wrecked near Swanage on 
the cliffs of the Isle of Purbeck. It was no wonder 
that they preferred to pick their weather, and to 
hug the shore, in order that they might run into 
the nearest haven when a tempest seemed at hand. 
The seamanship of the English was undoubtedly 
inferior to that of the Scandinavians in the ninth 
century, and we may guess that in handiness as well 
as in numbers they were wholly unable to vie with 
their enemies before Alfred's day. 

The years 840-880 were the darkest period in 
the dismal century of the Viking raids. Neither 
in England nor on the Continent had there been 
found any effective way of resisting the invaders, 

126 King Alfred 

nor any great warrior who could inspire his sub- 
ject with the energy and courage that was needed 
to face the ever-growing evil. Kings like Ethel- 
wulf or Charles the Bald, however good their in- 
tentions, were wholly inadequate to the task. 
Their warlike sons, Louis III., the victor of Sau- 
court, and Ethelred, the victor of Ashdown, were 
cut off in the prime of their years, just when they 
were beginning to win themselves a name. The 
Danes went where they would, no longer taking to 
their ships when the national levy came out against 
them, but stockading a camp and defying the 
owners of the soil to evict them from it. Almost 
always the assaults made on these strongholds 
ended in disastrous failures : it is hard to say 
whether the repulse of Charles the Bald at Givald's 
Foss (852), of Ethelred at Reading (871), or of 
Charles the Fat at Ashloh (882), was the more 
heart-breaking to the landsfolk. It seemed im- 
possible to burst through the bristling line of stakes 
and ditch manned by the veteran axemen of the 
heathen bands. 

The fact was that the rank and file of the 
Viking hosts were individually superior to the 
peasant-levies that strove to overwhelm them. In 
a Prankish or an English army only counts and 
aldermen, thegns and wealthy vassals, wore the 
steel helm and the ring-mail byrnie : the masses 
that followed them to the field had no more than 

As Warrior i 27 

spear and shield, possessing no defensive armour 
whatever. The Vikings, on the other hand, were 
professional fighting-men, armed not only with the 
" war-nets " that their own smiths could make, but 
with the spoils of a hundred victorious fights. It 
was no wonder that they could hold out against 
very superior numbers of the raw, half -armed 
militia of the English Fyrd and the Prankish Ban. 
In the ages when personal skill with axe and sword 
and trained agility of body counted for so much, 
one practised warrior was worth two farmers fresh 
from the plough. It required a vast preponder- 
ance of force, or a very skilled and fortunate leader, 
to enable the Christian host to inflict a really 
crushing defeat on the invaders. 

When Alfred was a child the problem seemed 
growing more hopeless day by day. Even the 
greatest cities of Western Christendom were falling 
a prey to the heathen. London had been taken 
and sacked in 851, Tours in 853, Paris in 857, 
Winchester in 860. The invading hordes, now 
carried in fleets of three or four hundred sail, came 
ashore where they would, seized horses in the 
country-side and rode across the land, plundering 
far and wide, to some appointed spot to which their 
fleet came round and joined them. Or they would 
draw their ships ashore at some convenient estuary, 
set a guard over them, and send the rest of the 


host to make a circular raid, which finally took 

128 King Alfred 

them back to their camp and their vessels. The 
former plan was the better, since if the ships ran 
out to sea after throwing ashore the landing force, 
the defenders of the realm did not know where the 
march of the enemy would be directed ; while if 
the fleet was immobilised on some ness or island, 
it was easy to intercept the raiders, who were bound 
to make their way back to their base. 

The lowest pitch of despair seemed to be reached 
when in many regions rulers and people ceased to 
try to defend themselves against the Danes, and 
merely strove to procure a precarious respite from 
their oppressors by bribing them to depart and 
transfer their ravages to other shores. This was 
done in 865 by the Kentishmen, in 866 by the 
East Angles, in 869 by the Mercians. Of course 
the expedient was futile ; the news that one Viking 
host had received a handsome tribute only drew 
down another, set on obtaining similar booty. 

Finally, there came the last step of all : not con- 
tent with plunder and blackmail the invaders began 
to think of taking up their permanent residence in 
the land and making its unfortunate inhabitants 
their subjects. The idea had already occurred to 
Jarl Thorgils in Ireland, but his ephemeral king- 
dom had disappeared at his murder. Now it was 
renewed in England in 868, after the battle of 
York, the most fearful disaster which had yet 
befallen any of the Christian kingdoms. The 

As Warrior 129 

Danes had stormed the Northumbrian capital : 
they had slain the two rival kings, Osbert and Ella, 
who combined to attack them : all the thegnhood 
of the northern realm had perished. Taking up 
their quarters in the ancient city of Edwin and 
Oswald, the conquerors began to parcel out the 
neighbouring region among themselves as a per- 
manent possession. 

It was in the year after this terrible downfall of 
the Northern Kingdom that Alfred made his first 
campaign. He was now nineteen, and had just 
married his Mercian bride, Ealhswith, the daughter 
of Alderman Ethelred. The enterprise in which 
he was engaged was one of a very typical character 
a dozen expeditions with the same unfortunate 
end could be cited from the English and Prankish 
annals of the third quarter of the ninth century. 
A large Viking host had entered Mercia and forced 
its way up the Trent as far as Nottingham. King 
Burgred sent to Wessex to beg the aid of his 
brother-in-law Ethelred, who marched to his help, 
taking his brother Alfred with him as second in 
command. The united hosts of the two English 
realms were too large for the Vikings to dare to 
face them in the open field. They stockaded 
themselves in a great camp on the banks of the 
Trent and waited to be attacked. The landsfolk 
laid siege to the stronghold, and strove to storm 
it ; but they utterly failed to break their way in. 


130 King Alfred 

After lying some time before it, they dispersed in 
despair : Ethelred and Alfred went home : the 
unfortunate Burgred then asked for terms, and got 
rid of the Vikings for a short space by paying them 
a large tribute. The Danes returned to York, lay 
there for one year, and then threw themselves 
upon the East Angles. They slew King Edmund, 
" the Martyr," scattered his army, sacked the 
towns and monasteries of Norfolk and Suffolk, 
and made themselves masters of the whole realm 

Next year the turn of Wessex came : the Mer- 
cians had at least bought two years of respite by 
the treaty of Nottingham. Marching from East 
Anglia the " Grand Army " of the Vikings crossed 
the Thames, seized Reading, and stockaded a great 
camp in the angle between the Kennet and the 
Thames to serve as a base for their ravaging parties. 
But in spite of a dozen disasters suffered during 
the last forty years at the hands of the same enemy, 
the spirit of Wessex was not yet quenched. Its 
shire-levies loyally answered King Ethelred's call, 
and gathered in great strength opposite the Danish 
camp. The Berkshire fyrd even succeeded in bring- 
ing to bay and destroying at Englefield a large 
plundering party headed by a Jarl. But the main 
body of the Vikings was not so easily disposed of. 
A general attack on their stronghold, headed by 
Ethelred and Alfred, proved wholly unfortunate. 

As Warrior 131 

When the assailants had wearied themselves in vain 
attempts to hew their way through the stockade, 
and drew off repulsed, the enemy made a sudden 
sortie : " bursting out of the gates like wolves," 
they fell on the shattered ranks of the men of 
Wessex, drove them away, and held possession of 
the battle spot. Thinking apparently that the 
English were disposed of so far as further fighting 
was concerned, the Vikings now started for a 
raid westward along the Thames valley : the camps 
at Sinodun and Pusey, both large and formidable 
structures, possibly represent their halting-places 
on the first and second nights of their advance. 
The third day took them to Ashdown, in the 
" Vale of the White Horse." But they found there 
was still heavy fighting in prospect : the untiring 
Ethelred and Alfred had rallied their beaten host, 
and were now hanging on the invaders' heels and 
making it impossible for them to scatter after 
plunder. The heathen kings Halfdan and Bagsceg 
thereupon determined to take the offensive, and 
to attack and scatter the men of Wessex before 
proceeding farther with their raid. They were 
encamped high on the ridge of the Berkshire 
Downs, while Ethelred and Alfred lay at some 
distance below them. 

Two such warriors as the sons of Ethelwulf 
were not likely to decline a fair battle in the open. 
When the Danes drew up in front of their camp 

1 3 2 King Alfred 

in two heavy bodies, the English arrayed them- 
selves in two corresponding masses. It is now 
that we get our first concrete and personal notice 
of Alfred as warrior. His brother the king, pious 
even to superstition as his father had been, lingered 
behind in his camp hearing the mass. News was 
brought him that the Danes were on the move, 
but he swore that he would not leave his tent till 
the priest had finished the last word of the service. 
Alfred meanwhile, not less pious but more practical 
than his brother, was in his proper place at the 
head of his division. He waited long for Ethel- 
red, but the king came not, and meanwhile the 
Danes were drawing near, moving downward in 
good order along the hillside. If they struck the 
English host while it stood idly halted on the 
lower slope, it was certain that they would bear it 
down by their mere impetus. Then Alfred, taking 
all the responsibility upon himself, ordered the 
men of Wessex to advance up the ridge. The 
four hostile divisions met with a great crash on the 
down-side, where a single stunted thorn was long 
pointed out as the actual spot of collision. The 
struggle was long and fierce ; but Alfred, " pushing 
uphill like a fierce wild boar," broke the Danish 
line, and finally the invaders gave way and fled. 
King Bagsceg and five earls, two Sihtrics, Osbiorn, 
Fraena, and Harald were slain, with many thousands 
of their men. Ethelred only arrived in time to 

As Warrior 133 

urge the pursuit, which was continued for two 
days, till King Halfdan and the wrecks of his host 
succeeded in sheltering themselves behind the 
palisades of their camp at Reading. 

Western Christendom had won few such victories 
over its invaders ; yet all the fruits of the success 
vanished unaccountably in a few weeks. How it 
came to pass we cannot say, but only fourteen days 
after Ashdown another fight took place at Basing, 
a dozen miles south of Reading, and this time 
Ethelred was defeated. Two months later the war 
was still lingering on the borders of Berks and 
Wilts, and a battle was fought at Marton, near 
Bedwyn, in which Ethelred and Alfred were 
thoroughly beaten, and the king mortally wounded. 
He died at Eastertide, and his decease was at once 
followed by his brother's election to the throne 

Hitherto, save at Ashdown, it has been impossible 
to separate Alfred's doings from those of Ethelred. 
We may guess that much of the untiring energy 
shown by the men of Wessex was due to the activity 
of the Etheling rather than to that of his pious 
elder brother ; but we can prove nothing. When, 
however, Alfred begins to reign in his own right, 
we can at last make him personally responsible for 
the conduct of the war. 

At first, it must be confessed, we can detect 
little more than mere courage and perseverance in 

134 King Alfred 

the young king's conduct. Of generalship we 
find no evidence. His first battle was a disaster. 
The victors of Marton, strengthened by a large new 
"summer-army" from over-seas, pressed deeper 
into Wiltshire. Ere Alfred had been a month on 
the throne, he met them near Wilton, but his army 
was small. The spirit of Wessex had begun to fail 
after a year in which eight engagements with the 
invaders had already been fought, four of which had 
been bloody defeats. The thegnhood was terribly 
worn down in numbers, the shire-levies so dis- 
couraged that they came to the muster in number 
far smaller than usual. But Alfred nevertheless 
offered battle. Taking up a strong position on a 
hill, he repulsed the Danes with great slaughter 
when they attacked him. But his army, carried 
away by their ardour, charged down from its 
favourable post to cut up the defeated enemy. 
The Vikings rallied, and turned on their scattered 
pursuers, whom they finally drove from the field. 
Thus inauspiciously began Alfred's independent 
military career. But in spite of their victory the 
Danes, who had suffered almost as much as the 
English in this year of battles, consented to retire 
from Wessex on receiving a moderate sum of 
money. Alfred paid them, though he must have 
been aware that he was only buying a short respite. 
Time, however, was all-valuable to a king who 
wished to reorganise his exhausted realm. 

As Warrior 135 

For the next four years (872-875) there was 
comparative peace in Wessex : the enemy was em- 
ployed partly on the Continent, partly in the con- 
quest of Mercia, whose eastern half they annexed 
in 874, handing over the western part as a vassal 
kingdom to " an unwise thegn named Ceolwulf," 
who fondly thought that it was possible to settle 
down as a vassal of the greedy Northmen. Alfred's 
main endeavour in these years was to develop a 
navy ; he " built galleys and Jong-ships," and 
exerted himself to find trained crews for them, 
hiring " pirates" converted Danes, we may suppose 
to teach his own men seamanship. The begin- 
nings of this national fleet must have been modest, 
for the chronicler thinks it a fact of note that the 
king's galleys were able in 875 to attack seven 
Viking ships, take one, and chase the rest out to 
sea. Two years later, however, the squadron, as 
we shall see from its doings, must have developed 
to a more formidable strength. 

It was not till 876 that Alfred's reorganisation of 
his realm was put to the test. In that year a great 
Viking host under the kings Guthrum, Oskytel, and 
Amund made a sudden dash into Wessex, appeared 
in Dorsetshire, and seized Wareham, where they 
stockaded themselves between the Frome and the 
Trent in one of their usual water -girt camps. 
Alfred was soon upon them with the whole levy of 
Wessex, and held them so tightly blockaded he 

136 King Alfred 

made no attempt to storm their works after the 
experience of Reading that they asked for terms, 
gave hostages, swore their greatest oath, and 
promised to depart. But when the king was off 
his guard all that part of the host that was provided 
with horses made a sudden sally, slipped through 
the English lines, and rode day and night till they 
reached Exeter, which they took by surprise. 
There they again stockaded themselves, and lay en- 
trenched for the winter of 876-877. The indefati- 
gable king followed them, again drew lines round 
their camp, and beleaguered them till they were 
oppressed with famine. They were depending for 
their relief on a squadron which was to run down 
the Channel and join them at the mouth of the 
Exe ; but Alfred sent his fleet, such as it was, to 
intercept the incoming pirates. There was an en- 
gagement somewhere off the south coast, from 
which the Danes retired without winning a victory, 
and immediately after a great storm cast their 
vessels on the cliffs of the Isle of Purbeck. A 
hundred and twenty galleys, with all their crews, 
are said to have perished near Swanage. Reduced 
to despair by this news, the Danes at Exeter 
asked for terms, and departed for Mercia before 
the summer was out. 

This campaign had been such a complete success 
for Alfred that the events of the next year are a 
perfect surprise to us as indeed they were to the 

A s Warrior 137 

contemporary observer ; " slay thirty thousand of 
these heathen in one day," says Asser, " and on the 
next sixty thousand will appear." In the first days 
of January 878 the main army of the Vikings, 
starting from Mercia, made a sudden and unex- 
pected descent on Wiltshire, cutting the West- 
Saxon realm in twain. From a central camp at 
Chippenham they raided east and west into Hamp- 
shire on the one side and Somersetshire on the 
other. At the same time a separate pirate fleet 
which had spent its Yule in South Wales crossed 
the Bristol Channel and threw itself upon North 
Devon. It must have been the sudden and unex- 
pected character of such an attack at mid-winter 
which for a moment seemed to have crushed 
Wessex. The king, who appears to have been in 
the west at the time, threw himself into the Isle of 
Athelney with a small band of his thegns and 
personal retainers, and there built his famous 
stockade in the marshes of the Parret. Elsewhere 
there was panic : many men of note fled over-seas 
to the Franks : large districts offered tribute and 
submission to the Danish king Guthrum. 

But the worst of the panic only lasted a few 
weeks : before Easter the men of Devonshire 
rallied and cut to pieces at Kenwith the army from 
South Wales, slaying its leaders, Ingwar and 
Hubba, and 1 200 of their followers, and capturing 
their famous Raven standard. Somewhat later the 

138 King Alfred 

levies of Somerset, Wilts, and Hampshire assembled 
in the forest of Selwood under the king in person 
and marched against the Danish camp at Chippen- 
ham. The invaders, thinking they were strong 
enough to fight in the open, moved out to Edding- 
ton to meet the advancing English. There they 
were routed in a battle of which we know no 
details, save that the king's men fought in one 
dense mass not in two, as at Ashdown and that 
the fight was long and desperate. The defeated 
host fled to its stronghold at Chippenham, on the 
east bank of the Avon. Alfred followed hard 
upon them, and, pushing up to the very gates of the 
stockade, built a camp almost in actual touch with 
it, so as to make any sortie well-nigh impossible. 
The Danes were quite unprepared for a siege ; 
they had fondly imagined that Wessex was their 
own, and had accumulated no stores. In fourteen 
days they were starved out, and concluded with 
the king the famous pact which is often, but inac- 
curately, called the Peace of Wedmore. King 
Guthrum and thirty of his chiefs consented to 
receive baptism, did homage to Alfred, and under- 
took to withdraw from his realm and to trouble 
him no more. These conditions, it is surprising to 
find, were punctually fulfilled ; the Viking became 
a Christian, and withdrew his host first to Ciren- 
cester in Mercia and then to East Anglia, where 
they all settled down and gave no trouble for some 

As Warrior 139 

years. A great fleet which had come up the 
Thames as far as Fulham, and had been harassing 
Kent and Western Wessex, lingered some months 
after Guthrum's defeat, but gave up its enterprise 
in the spring of 879, sailed off eastwards, and set 
itself to ravage Flanders. 

The peace of 878 is rightly taken as the 
turning-point of Alfred's reign. He had so 
thoroughly impressed upon the Vikings the notion 
that in Wessex they would meet hard blows and 
small plunder that for some years they gave his 
realm a wide berth, and devoted their main atten- 
tion to the Prankish kingdoms, where the imbecile 
Charles the Fat was just about to start upon his 
disgraceful career. It was more profitable to 
blackmail realms whose kings shirked battles and 
proffered rich tribute than pay a visit to the inde- 
fatigable ruler of Wessex. The events of 872-878 
had made Alfred thoroughly well acquainted with 
every wile of Danish warfare ; he was not likely 
again to be taken by surprise, or caught unawares 
by an attack in time of truce or negotiation. In 
the numerous wars of his later years he shows a 
mastery over his opponents which he was far from 
possessing in the days of Reading or Wilton. In 
especial the great struggle of 893-896, when he had 
to face dangers quite as complicated and pressing 
as those of 872 or 878, found him so well prepared 
that its issue was never seriously in doubt, though 

140 King Alfred 

the seat of war was perpetually shifting over every 
region between Kent and Chester, Essex and 

The first occupation to which Alfred seems to 
have devoted himself after the peace of 878 was 
the further development of his fleet. In 882 he 
actually went out with it in person and destroyed 
a small Viking squadron. In 885 he took the 
more daring step of sending it northward into 
hostile water. The East Anglian Danes having, 
after seven years of peace, broken their pact with 
him, he sent a squadron from Kent all up the 
Essex coast, and destroyed sixteen long-ships at the 
mouth of the Stour. Unfortunately his victorious 
vessels were intercepted by the whole force of the 
Danelagh ere they could return, and suffered a 
disastrous defeat. It was not till some years later, 
and when his last great war on land was over, that 
Alfred tried his final naval experiment, building 
" long-ships that were nigh twice as large as those 
of the Danes, some with sixty oars, some with 
more. They were both steadier and swifter, and 
also higher than others, and were shaped neither 
as the Frisian nor the Danish ships, but as it 
seemed to himself that they would be most handy." 
The natural result was the destruction of more 
than twenty Viking ships along the south coast in 
the sole summer of 897. 

The second expedient which Alfred took in 

As Warrior 141 

hand was the systematic construction of fortifica- 
tions. Not only were the towns encouraged to 
surround themselves with strong ditches and pali- 
sades, but "burhs" moated mounds girt with 
concentric rings of ditch and stockade were 
erected at strategical points. London, recovered 
from the East Anglian Danes in 886, was made 
far stronger than it had ever been before by the 
patching up of its ancient Roman walls. It was 
filled with a new colony of warlike settlers, and 
became an outpost of Wessex to the north of the 
Thames. The consequences of the fact that the 
larger English towns were no longer open but well 
fortified are clearly seen in Alfred's later wars. 
The Danes cannot capture important places at 
the first rush, as they had done with York, Win- 
chester, and London thirty years before. They 
have to lay siege to them in full form, and always 
before the siege is many days old the indefatigable 
king appears with an army of relief. The invaders 
had then either to fight, to take to their ships, or 
to stockade themselves in their entrenchments and 
suffer a leaguer themselves. Generally they chose 
the second alternative, as at Rochester in 886, 
when they abandoned their horses, their stores, and 
all their heavy plunder, and sailed off the moment 
that the army of succour came in sight. The 
same scene occurred at Exeter in 894. The im- 
portance of fortified places in keeping the Danes 

142 King Alfred 

employed till the fyrd could assemble can hardly 
be exaggerated. The only stronghold which did 
not serve its purpose was a certain " work only half 
constructed in which there were some few country- 
folk " near Appledore in Kent. This fell before an 
attack of the "Great Army " in 893. 

It would seem that the system by which Alfred's 
" burhs " were maintained was not unlike that 
which Henry the Fowler employed in Germany 
a generation later. To each stronghold there was 
allotted, as it would appear, a certain number of 
" hides " of land in the surrounding region. All 
the thegns dwelling on these hides were responsible 
for the defence of the burh. Probably they were 
bound to build a house within it, and either to 
dwell there in person, or to place therein a substi- 
tute equally competent with themselves for military 
purposes. It would seem that the " cnih ten-guilds" 
of London and several other places were the 
original associations of these military settlers whom 
Alfred and his immediate successors placed in their 
burhs. Of the local distribution of the fortresses 
we have a precious relic in the " Burgal Hidage," 
a document belonging to the very early years of 
the tenth century, which gives a complete list of 
all the land dependent on the burhs of Wessex, 
and certain materials for the regions north of 
Thames also, where Edward the Elder was begin- 
ning to encroach on the Danelagh by means of his 

As Warrior 143 

new foundations. That the system started with 
Alfred rather than his son seems to follow from 
two passages in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where, 
under the year 894, we hear of " the king's thegns 
who were at home in the fortresses," and again of 
the fyrd being " half in the field and half at home, 
beside those men that held the burhs." 

One of Alfred's devices of fortification deserves 
a special mention, as being new on this side of the 
Channel, though some partial precedents for it can 
be found in the wars of the Franks. In 896 the 
main body of the Viking invaders had concentrated 
at the Thames mouth, and then pushed up the 
river Lea to a spot fifteen miles from London, 
dragging their fleet with them. Noting the 
narrowness of the river, Alfred built two formid- 
able burhs, one on each side of the Lea, just below 
the Danish camp, and then obstructed the stream 
probably by palisades and floating booms 
between the two forts. The hostile fleet was so 
securely " bottled up " that the Vikings had to 
abandon it when they moved off" on land, and the 
Londoners were able to bring back the whole of 
the galleys to their city when the enemy was gone. 
Beside the building of a fleet, and the systematic 
use of fortification, we have strong evidence that 
Alfred employed the third means of strengthening 
his realm that we indicated in the beginning of this 
chapter that of increasing the numbers of the 

144 King Alfred 

thegnhood, the professional military class. We are 
unfortunately not able to separate his work from 
that of his successor, Edward the Elder ; but as 
Alfred was a man of far more original genius 
than his son, we may fairly suspect him of being 
the originator of the scheme. It took the shape of 
enlisting in the ranks of the thegnhood all the 
more wealthy and energetic of the middle-classes 
both in the country-side and in the towns. Every 
ceorl who " throve so that he had fully five hides 
of land, and a helm and a mail-shirt, and a sword 
ornamented with gold," was to be for the future 
reckoned " gesithcund," or as another law phrased 
it, " of thegn-right worthy." A second draft of 
the first-quoted document even allows a ceorl who 
has the military equipment complete, but not fully 
the five hides of land, to slip into the privileged 
class. The same privilege was given as a premium 
for energy among town-dwellers to " the merchant 
who had fared thrice over the high seas at his own 

In return for their promotion in the social scale, 
ceorl and merchant alike were of course bound to 
follow the king to the field in full mail when he 
raised his banner, and no longer got ofF with the 
less arduous service expected from mere members 
of the shire-levy. We cannot doubt that such 
measures caused a large increase in the numbers of 
the thegnhood, and thereby provided the king with 

As Warrior 145 

a more efficient and better armed core for the 
national host than his predecessors had ever 

The campaigns against Hasting and the " Great 
Army" in 893-896 give, as we have already said, 
the best test of the efficiency of Alfred's reorganisa- 
tion of his realm. The invaders came ashore in 
two places, Appledore in Kent and Milton by the 
Thames mouth. Each host found itself at once 
observed by a strong force, and unable to disperse 
for plunder. The king " encamped as near to them 
as he had room for the wood-fastnesses and the 
water-fastnesses, so that he might reach either if 
they might seek a field. Then they tried to go 
through the weald in troops, on whichever side 
there might not be a force. But each troop was 
sought out by a band from the king's host, and 
also from the burns." At last the whole host at 
Appledore broke up and tried to march northward. 
Alfred stopped them at Farnham, took all their 
baggage, and drove them in disorder over the 
Thames. The survivors joined part of Hasting's 
army at Benfleet in Essex : the pirate king himself 
was absent with the rest. Following hard on their 
heels, the English stormed the camp, captured 
Hasting's wife and sons, and took a vast booty. 
But Alfred was not in person with this army : a 
third Viking host of a hundred ships had laid siege 
to Exeter, and he had flown westward to deal with 

146 King Alfred 

it. On his approach the Vikings took to their ships 
and sailed up to the Channel and round the North 
Foreland to Shoeburyness in Essex, where they 
picked up the remnants of the force that had been 
routed at Benfleet, and some other reinforcements 
from the East Anglian Danes. Swelled to a large 
host by these accretions, the army that had failed 
at Exeter marched across Southern Mercia to the 
Severn, and " wrought a work " at Buttington. 1 
Here they were at once beset by Alfred's son-in- 
law and most faithful servant, Ethelred Alderman 
of the Hwiccas, who had with him the levies of 
Somerset, Wilts, Gloucester, and Worcester. Ex- 
pelled by him from the Severn valley, the Vikings 
retired to their kinsmen in Eastern England. 
There they again gathered reinforcements, and 
returning to the west, seized the empty walls of 
Chester desolate since Ethelfrith had sacked the 
old Roman town in 606 and tried to establish 
themselves there. But again they had no rest : 
the forces of English Mercia, aided by the kings of 
North Wales, laid siege to the place. Starvation 
finally compelled the Vikings to abandon it. They 
went back through the friendly territory of their 
Northumbrian kinsmen, and returned to East 
Anglia (895). Their last effort was made in 
the following year, and consisted in the advance 
up the Thames and Lea which we have already had 

1 In Shropshire, and not to be identified with Boddington in Gloucestershire. 

As Warrior 147 

occasion to describe. There King Alfred assailed 
them in person, and captured their fleet by the 
device of blocking the river by his two burhs. 
Deprived of their vessels the Danes made their last 
march : pressing overland, they for the second time 
entered the Severn valley and " wrought a work " 
at Quatbridge. 1 Alfred followed them with the 
bulk of his host, and lay opposite them as the 
winter set in. It was impossible to get away from 
this untiring pursuer, and in the next spring the 
" Great Army " broke up in despair : " some 
returned to East Anglia and some to Northumbria, 
and those that were moneyless got themselves ships 
and went south over sea to the Seine. Thanks be 
to God, the army had not broken up the English 
race" (896). 

These splendid campaigns, known to us, alas ! 
only in outline, are the finest testimony to Alfred's 
powers of organisation that could be given. 
Wherever the Vikings appeared they were at once 
met by a sufficient force and held in check. Their 
strong camps could not defend them as of old : 
sometimes the palisades were stormed, sometimes 
blockade did the work, and the host had to depart 
in order to save itself from starvation. Three 
years of perpetual disaster tired out at last even 
the obstinacy of the battle-loving Northmen. They 
dispersed and sought other scenes of activity and 

1 Now Quatford, in Shropshire, like their former stronghold at Buttington. 

148 King Alfred 

enemies less formidable than the great king of 

For the last four years of his life Alfred was 
undisturbed save by trifling raids of small squadrons, 
which he brushed off with ease by means of the 
new fleet of " great ships " which he had built. 
The work of defence was done : Wessex was saved, 
and with Wessex the English nationality. In a 
few years the king's gallant son, Edward the Elder, 
was to take the offensive against the old enemy, 
and to repay on the Danelagh all the evils that 
England had suffered during the miserable years 
of the ninth century. That such triumphs lay 
within his power was absolutely and entirely the 
work of his great father, who had turned defeat 
into victory, brought order out of chaos, and left 
the torn and riven kingdom that he had inherited 
transformed into the best organised and most 
powerful state in Western Europe. 




HE single-minded devotion of King 
Alfred to the service of his people is 
shown in every action of his life ; and 
one of the greatest, certainly the most 
remarkable undertaking for that end, was the con- 
veyance of knowledge to them in their own lan- 
guage, through paraphrased translations. It was 
thus that he strove to disseminate some acquaint- 
ance with theology, moral philosophy, history, 
and geography. It is a very striking and 
suggestive fact that a ruler who surpassed all 
others that the world has ever seen in wisdom and 
insight, as well as in complete abnegation of every 
selfish thought in his dealings with his people, 
should have given so high a place to geography. 
Alfred knew by experience that an acquaintance 
with the relative positions of places on the earth's 
surface was the necessary foundation of the kind 
of knowledge required equally by the statesman, 

152 King Alfred 

the soldier, and the merchant ; and he therefore 
gave its due place to geography in his grand 
scheme for the enlightenment of Englishmen. In 
this he was centuries in advance of his age, and 
even now the standard in this, as in other respects, 
is below that of the wisest of our kings. 

Alfred, as was his wont, when he had resolved to 
bring knowledge on any particular subject within 
the reach of his people, diligently sought out the 
best authority on geography. Ptolemy, Strabo, 
and Pliny were unknown to his generation, still 
hidden away in dark repositories and not to be un- 
earthed until the dawn of the Renaissance. In the 
ninth century the best geographical work was that 
of Paulus Orosius, who had lived in the days of 
the Emperor Honorius. He was a native of 
Tarragona in Spain, and took orders in the 
Christian church. Perplexed by the controversies 
in his own country, the young Spanish deacon 
undertook a voyage to Africa, to receive the solu- 
tion of his doubts from the famous Bishop of 
Hippo. Orosius secured the friendship of St. 
Augustine, who sent him to Palestine on two 
occasions before A.D. 416, and gave him oppor- 
tunities for study. The result was a work in- 
tended to refute the pagan opinion that the sack 
of Rome by Alaric was due to the anger of the 
ancient gods. It, however, contained much more 
than mere polemics, and was in fact a summary of 

As a Geographer 153 

the world's history from the creation to the days 
of Honorius, with a sketch of all that was then 
known of geography. 

Alfred brought high qualifications to the task 
of translating and editing Orosius. 1 In his boy- 
hood he had twice made journeys to Rome, which, 
as regards danger and hardships, may be compared 
to an expedition to Lhasa at the present day. In 
after life he had become very intimately acquainted 
\with the topography of his native island, from 
the Humber to the shores of the Channel, and 
from the Severn to the East Anglian coast. As 
a military tactician he knew each river, valley, hill 
range, and plain ; as an administrator he had ex- 
amined the capabilities of every district ; and as a 
naval commander, the harbours and estuaries, the 
tides and currents were familiar to him. So far 
as his personal knowledge extended, Alfred was 
a trained geographer. He was also in a position 
to increase the information derived from his own 
personal experiences by diligently collecting 
materials from those foreigners who frequented his 
court, and by reading. He had the gift of assimi- 
lating the knowledge thus acquired, and he studied 
most diligently. Above all, he was eager to in- 

1 The manuscripts of Alfred's Orosius are in the Cottonian collection and 
in the Lauderdale MS. They were used by Hakluyt. The work was first 
edited by Daines Harrington and Reinhold Foster in 1773 ; and in 1855 a 
literal English translation, with a facsimile, and the An^lo-Snxon text, were 
published by the Rev. Joseph Bos worth, D.D. 

1 54 King Alfred 

vestigate unknown things for the great end he 
always had in view the good of his people. 

Alfred's design was to collect the best and most 
extensive geographical information, without con- 
fining himself to the text of Orosius. Thus he 
commences his geographical work with a very 
lucid account of the peoples of central Europe and 
of their relative positions, which is not in the work 
of Orosius, but was composed by the king himself 
from his own sources of information. It is the 
only account from which such details in that age 
can be derived. 

The East Franks, he tells us, were established 
east of the Rhine and north of the source of the 
Danube. The Swabians were to the south and 
beyond the Danube, while the Bavarians were 
farther east round the town of Ratisbon, both 
peoples occupying the country up to the foot of 
the Alps. East of the Bavarians was Bohemia, 
and to the north-east was Thuringia. Turning to 
the north of Germany the king places the old 
Saxons round the mouth of the Elbe, and the 
Frisians farther west. North of the Elbe were 
the Angles, who nearly all came to people England, 
and the Danes on the mainland and in the island 
of Zealand. King Alfred then gives some details 
respecting the Slavonic tribes in the eastern part of 
Germany. The Afdrede were established in what 
is now Mecklenburg, and the Wylte in that part 

Asa Geographer 155 

of the mark of Brandenburg then called Hasfeldan. 
The Sysyle were in a part of Eastern Prussia 
then known as Wineda-land. Eastward from the 
countries of the Bohemians and Bavarians were 
the Moravians ; and to the south, beyond the 
Danube again, and extending to the Alps, was 
Carinthia. A desert, by which the Karst may be 
intended, extended between Carinthia and the land 
of the Bulgarians, beyond which was the Byzantine 
empire. To the east of Moravia was Wisl-land, 
the region watered by the Vistula, Dalamensan, 
Horithi, and Surpe. These Slavonic peoples 
occupied Poland, and to the north-east was Ser- 
mende, the modern Livonia. 

Having given the relative positions of the 
peoples inhabiting central Europe, King Alfred 
turns to the north, and takes us to the countries 
bordering on the British sea and the Baltic, or 
Ost-sae as he calls it. The north Danes were then 
in the provinces of Halland and Scania, now part 
of Sweden, as well as in the islands. To the east- 
ward were the Afdrede already mentioned as occu- 
pying Mecklenburg, the Burgendas apparently on 
the island of Bornholm, and Osti or Easterlings, 
a Finnish race, inhabited Esthonia. On the 
Scandinavian peninsula were the Sweon or 
Swedes, the Northmen, and the Scride-Finnas 
or " striding Finns." Far to the north, between 
the Gulf of Bothnia and the Arctic Sea, includ- 

156 King Alfred 

ing Finmarken, was the waste country called 

Having given this most valuable summary of 
the inhabitants of Central and Northern Europe 
during the ninth century, King Alfred proceeds to 
relate the particulars of two important voyages 
made by distinguished seamen who had come to 
his court and recited their adventures to him. The 
first was an influential Northman or Norwegian 
named Oht-here, or in old Norwegian, Ottar. 
The name is derived from the two words oht 
(dread or fear) and h#r or here (an army), 
htfrmand, a warrior. The right meaning of Oht- 
here is, therefore, " terror-causing warrior." This 
able navigator "told his Lord King Alfred that 
he dwelt northmost of all Northmen, on the land 
by the west sea." The district in which he dwelt 
was called Halgoland, the land of fire, or more 
probably " the land of the northern lights." Oht- 
here's home has been placed on the shores of Lerivik 
Sound, between the Island of Senjen and the main- 
land. " He said no man abode north of him. He 
was a wealthy man in those possessions in which their 
wealth consists," possessing 600 tame reindeer of 
his own breeding, 20 horned cattle, as many sheep 
and swine, and horses with which he ploughed a 
small extent of tilled land. But his revenues were 
chiefly derived from tribute paid to him by the 
Laplanders, called Finns by the Norwegians, in 

As a Geographer 157 

furs and skins, birds' feathers, whalebone, and 
ropes made from walrus hide. Oht-here called his 
country North weg (Norway), and described it as 
being very long and narrow, with all the pasture 
and culturable land near the sea, which, however, is 
very rocky in some places. Inland, he said that 
there were high mountains, and farther to the 
eastward were Sweden in the south and Cwenland 
in the north. He added that to the north of 
Halgoland the country was waste and desert, 
except in a few places, where the Laplanders were 
encamped for hunting, or on the sea-coast for 
fishing in the summer. 

Oht-here was evidently a man of high position 
and great influence, one who was worthy of the 
friendship and confidence of King Alfred. He 
was inspired by the noble desire for Arctic explora- 
tion and discovery, or, as he expressed himself to 
the king, he desired to find out how the land lay 
far to the north. So he undertook a most adven- 
turous voyage to the northward, coasting along the 
land, keeping the wild, rocky coast on his starboard 
side and the wide Arctic Sea on what he called his 
bcec-bord. Continuing this course for three days, 
he passed beyond the most northern point to which 
the whale-hunters ever went in those days. Still 
pressing onwards, he attained the most northern 
point ever reached by man, in about 71 15' N 
The land then trended eastward, and, after 

158 King Alfred 

waiting a short time for a westerly wind, he shaped 
a course along the coast to the eastward until he 
reached the entrance of the White Sea on the fourth 
day. Here he waited for a northerly breeze, which 
enabled him to coast round the Kola peninsula 
to the mouth of the Varzuga river, and thus to 
discover the White Sea. Here he stopped owing 
to fear of hostilities from the natives beyond. 
These were the North Carelians, on the western 
coast of the White Sea. Oht-here calls them 
Beormas, and says that they had a well-peopled land. 

Oht-here's discoveries included the whole of the 
Arctic coast of Finmarken and the shores of the 
White Sea as far as the mouth of the Varzuga. 
He was the first to double the North Cape, and 
Oht-here's farthest north held its ground for nearly 
seven hundred years, until the voyage of Willoughby 
and Chancellor in 1553. 

Oht-here calls the country between the Gulf of 
Bothnia and the Arctic Sea, Terfinna land, Ter 
being the ancient name of the Kola peninsula. 
Terfinna therefore means the Finns in Ter. He 
describes it as entirely waste and uninhabited, ex- 
cept where the Laplanders were encamped for 
hunting or fishing. He was told many tales 
respecting their country by the Beormas, but 
King Alfred did not record them, because they 
were only from hearsay, and not things the ex- 
plorer could testify to from personal knowledge. 

As a Geographer 159 

Besides discovery, another object of Oht-here's 
voyage was the capture of walrus, for the sake of 
their hides and tusks. He calls the walrus a horse 
whale, but says that it is much smaller than other 
whales ; thus correctly including whales, usually 
supposed to be fish in ancient times, under the 
head of mammalia, by classing them with the 
walrus. The length of a walrus is given, with 
approximate accuracy, at 14 feet. Oht-here told 
King Alfred that the great whales were from 96 
to 100 feet long, and that the best whale-hunting 
was off his own country of Halgoland. The skill 
and energy of those old Norsemen must have been 
most remarkable, for Oht-here says that his was one 
of six vessels which killed sixty whales in two days. 
The ships must have had very large crews, and a 
considerable number of boats for each ship, to have 
achieved such an unequalled feat, probably without 
a rival in the whole history of whaling. But it is 
more likely that Oht-here alluded to walrus or 
" horse whales." 

Oht-here also described to the king a voyage 
to the south from Halgoland, along the coast of 
Norway, to Denmark and Slesvig. He said that 
with a fair wind, and anchoring each night, the 
voyage from Halgoland to a port he calls Sciringe- 
sheal, might be made in a month. Sciringesheal 
is in old Norwegian S c ir ings- s air, which, in the 
ninth century, was a town on the shores of a 

1 60 King Alfred 

small bay in Larviks-fjord, called Viks-fjord. In 
the English of Alfred the termination salr (a 
large room) is changed into heal (a hall). On 
the bosc-bord is Norway, and on the starboard 
side is Iraland and other islands. He then 
describes a great sea running inland, the Kattegat 
and the Baltic, with Jutland and Zeeland on the 
other side. The Baltic, he adds, runs several 
hundred miles up into the land. Oht-here sailed 
from Sciringesheal southwards, through the Danish 
islands to the coast of Slesvig, and reached the 
port of Haddeby. Alfred adds the interesting 
fact that the Angles dwelt in these lands round 
Haddeby before they came into England. 

Oht-here made a present of walrus ivory to 
King Alfred ; but he was not the only adventurous 
seaman who brought welcome information to the 
king. A Dane named Wulfstan gave him an 
account of a voyage in the Baltic from Haddeby 
to Truso, in what is now Eastern Prussia, and 
described to him the manners and customs of the 
people he visited. 

Haddeby, mentioned both by Oht-here and 
Wulfstan, was no doubt an important trading port 
in the ninth century. The word, as given by 
Alfred, is <et H<ethum, meaning "at the Heaths." 
" The town at the heaths " is the same as Hedeby 
or Haddeby, the ancient name of Slesvig. It is 
now a pretty little village, with a very ancient 

As a Geographer 1 6 1 

granite church, on the banks of the river Schley, 
just opposite the more recent town of Slesvig. 
Wulfstan made the voyage from Hadtteby to 
Truso in seven days. He had the Danish islands 
on the boec-bord) and the land of the Wends, now 
Mecklenburg, and Pomerania on his starboard 
side ; then the Swedish provinces of Bleking and 
Smaland, and the isles of Bornholm, Gland, and 
Gothland, to the north ; and the mouth of the 
Vistula to the south. Wulfstan finished his voyage 
by entering the inland sea, called Frische Haff, by a 
narrow strait, and going up the Elbing river to the 
town of Truso on the Drausen lake in East Prussia. 
Wulfstan gave a very full account of this 
country of Estum or Esthonia to King Alfred. 
There are kings in every town, he says, and the 
richer folk drink mare's milk (probably the fer- 
mented kumiss made from milk), while the poor 
people drink mead. The custom of treating 
their dead is to keep the bodies preserved in ice for 
a long time before they are burnt, during which 
there is drinking and festivities. The dead man's 
property is then divided into several lots, and 
placed along a course to be raced for, so that swift 
horses become uncommonly dear. King Alfred 
was also much struck by Wulfstan's account of the 
way in which the Esthonians could produce cold, 
both for preserving the dead during the period of 
festivities, and for icing their liquors. 

1 62 King Alfred 

In recording the information received from his 
two sailor visitors, Oht-here and Wulfstan, the 
clearness and perspicacity of the narrative, and the 
rejection of all hearsay evidence, show that King 
Alfred was most careful and conscientious, anxious 
to secure accuracy, and only to present to his 
people what was reliable. The voyages themselves 
are interesting, because they prove that, although 
the seas were alive with the piratical fleets of Rolf 
the Ganger, Hasting, and many other warriors 
bent only on pillage and rapine, there were at the 
same time peaceful ventures and even expeditions 
of discovery. 

The first voyage of Oht-here is memorable as 
the first Arctic expedition undertaken for the sake 
of discovery and exploration. There is nothing 
to show that it was undertaken under the auspices, 
or even with the knowledge, of Alfred. But it is 
certain that it received the cordial approval of our 
great king, and that its motives had the sympathy 
and appreciation of one who, in regenerating the 
navy of England, knew well that such training 
was of vital importance to a naval power. The 
welcome he extended to his Arctic visitor, and the 
care with which he elicited his information and 
recorded it, leave no doubt of what Alfred's feelings 
were upon this subject. When it is remembered 
that Alfred the Great rebuilt the English navy 
from his own designs, improving upon the lines of 

As a Geographer 163 

Danish and Norse ships, it ought not to be for- 
gotten, in the same connection, how highly he 
valued the work of Arctic exploration. He at 
least knew that a training in deeds of seaman-like 
daring and adventure is as important as the building 
of ships for securing and maintaining power on 
the sea. We have no further knowledge of the 
personal intercourse between the first Arctic ex- 
plorer and " his Lord King Alfred." He was 
cordially received at the English court, he pre- 
sented the king with an offering of walrus ivory, 
and there must have been conversations in the 
course of which the king received and sifted the 
evidence of his guest, until he was able to record 
the lucid and accurate narrative which has been 
preserved and handed down to us. 

After recording the events of the voyages of 
Oht-here and Wulfstan, King Alfred returns to 
the text of Orosius, where the geography of Greece 
and the islands is discussed, as well as that of the 
countries on the shores of the Adriatic. Thence 
Orosius passes to Italy, France, and Spain ; and in 
the latter country Cadiz and Betanzos in Galicia 
are mentioned. France was personally known 
to Alfred, who had visited the court of Charles 
the Bald, but he gives no reminiscence of his 
journeys. Nearly all Spain was then under the 
enlightened rule of the powerful western Khalifas 
Almondhir and Abdallah, while the Christian 

164 King Alfred 

kings of Oviedo fought to maintain a struggling 
existence in the mountains of Asturias. Even 
Leon was not occupied by them until after the 
death of Alfred. In his reference to Britain and 
the surrounding islands, including the Orkneys, 
there is an allusion to " the uttermost land that 
men call Thule," north-west of Ireland. Alfred 
held it to be Iceland, apparently. 

Africa is then treated of, with rather more 
fulness. The positions of Egypt and Libya 
Cyrenaica, of the Nasamones, near the Syrtis 
Major, of Numidia, Mauritania, and the Atlas 
Mountains, are laid down ; and after a passage 
where Orosius remarks on the ingratitude of the 
Egyptians to the memory of Joseph, King Alfred 
inserts an interesting reflection of his own : "So 
also it is still in all the world. If God for a 
very long time grants any one his will, and he then 
takes it away for a less time, he soon forgets the 
good which he had before, and thinks only upon 
the evil which he then hath." 

The concluding part of the work refers to the 
Mediterranean islands. Sicily is described with its 
three points, Pelorus, Pachynum, and Lilybasum ; 
but there is a serious mistake as regards its size, 
perhaps due to an error in transcription. Finally, 
there are notices of Scythia and Bactria, of Arabia 
and India, of Palestine and the Jordan, and of 
Cilicia, Isauria, and other places in Asia Minor, 

As a Geographer 165 

this part being from the text of Orosius. Africa 
seems to have been conceived to be a long, narrow 
continent, smaller than Europe, with no very great 
extension towards the south. 

When we consider the ignorance which prevailed 
in England before Alfred's time, we can form an 
idea of the immense importance of his geographical 
labours and of the brightness of the light with 
which he dispelled outer darkness in the minds of 
his countrymen. His work was more especially 
useful in his own time, owing to the intercourse he 
encouraged with foreign lands, and to the frequent 
missions he despatched and received. Every year 
there was intercourse with Rome, when the alms 
for St. Peter were despatched, generally in charge 
of an alderman or a dignitary of the Church. 
Embassies were received from Germany and the 
northern countries, from France, and probably 
from the Emperor Leo the Philosopher at Con- 
stantinople, and from the great western Khalifa at 
Cordova. King Alfred even despatched a mission 
to India, at the head of which was Sighelm or 
Suithelm, the Bishop of Sherburn. In those days 
there were native dynasties at the principal seats 
of Hindu civilisation. The Chohan kings were 
reigning at Delhi and Ajmir. At Ujjayana the 
Malwa Rajas held a brilliant court, where literature 
flourished, and where Kalidasa and his school 
reached the highest flights of poetic imagination. 

1 66 King Alfred 

At Madura, in Southern India, was the cultured 
Pandyon dynasty. It is probable that the visit of 
King Alfred's envoy was to the Pandyon King of 
Madura, for his instructions were to seek out the 
shrine of St. Thomas, which has traditionally been 
placed on the Coromandel coast. It is recorded 
that the Bishop of Sherburn returned safely to 
England, bringing back with him gems and other 
products of a country which was destined, in after 
ages, to become the brightest gem in the diadem 
of the descendants of Alfred the Great. 

Both through his promotion of intercourse with 
distant lands and through his literary work, our 
great king enlightened his people by disseminating 
geographical knowledge. The first to encourage 
Arctic exploration, the first to point the way to 
eastern trade by the Baltic, the first to open com- 
munication with India, his literary labours in the 
cause of geography are even more astonishing. 
There have been literary sovereigns since the days 
of Timaeus of Sicily, writing for their own glory 
or for their own edification or amusement. Alfred 
alone wrote with the sole object of his people's 
good ; while in his methods, in his scientific 
accuracy, and in his aims, he was several centuries 
in advance of his time. After his death there was 
a dreary waste of ignorance, with scarcely even a 
sign of dawn on the distant horizon. A few 
Englishmen of ability, such as Roger Bacon and 

As a Geographer 1 67 

Sacrobosco, speculated and wrote on questions " de 
sphterd," but there was no practical geography 
until Eden and Hakluyt rose up, nearly seven 
centuries after the death of our great king. 
Richard Hakluyt was indebted to Alfred for 
portions of his work, and he resembled his illus- 
trious precursor somewhat in his zeal, his patriotism, 
and his diligence. Hakluyt was, however, far behind 
Alfred in scientific precision and insight, although 
he lived so long afterwards, with seven more cen- 
turies of experience to guide him. Even now 
men of learning and research have their admiration 
aroused at the accuracy of King Alfred's descrip- 
tions, and at the pains he must have taken to reject 
what was doubtful and to retain only what was 
true. This called for the exercise of ability of a 
high order, as well as patience. 

Alfred the Great was, in the truest sense of the 
term, a man of science ; and we hail him as one 
who stands alone and unrivalled the founder of 
the science of geography in this country. 




UR estimate of the literary achieve- 
ments of King Alfred will depend 
very much upon what we are in 
the habit of thinking about his early 
education. If we are content to accept the 
story in Asser, that he had reached his twelfth 
year before he had learned to read, then we 
must reckon his literary career as a prodigy, a 
phenomenon which defies explanation. Or, if 
that will not satisfy us, we may liken him to his 
grandfather's contemporary the great Charles, who, 
being illiterate, knew the value of learning, and 
surrounded himself with learned men. On this 
theory it would follow that the writings of King 
Alfred are his only in that sense in which all 
works and monuments are said to belong to the 
king who has ordered them and paid for them. 
He who refuses to be satisfied with either of these 
alternatives can hardly fail to question the story 
about Alfred and the picture-book. 

The Saxon Chronicle says that Alfred was sent 

172 King Alfred 

to Rome in the year 853, at which time he was a 
little boy. This statement naturally suggests that 
he was sent to reside at the English College in 
Rome for the benefit of his education. But this is 
blurred in Asser by the further statement that he 
went to Rome a second time in the very next 
year ; which has the effect of reducing his travels 
to mere excursions. The second journey to Rome 
is not in the Chronicle, and it looks rather like an 
artifice, designed to parry the natural inference 
that the journey to Rome was for a prolonged and 
educational residence. Perhaps the author of 
"Asser's Life" was minded to make his hero a 
prodigy, and to this end the picture-book story 
must by all means be protected and maintained. 
These variations had the effect of shaking the 
credibility of the narrative, and raising doubts as 
to whether Alfred ever went to Rome at all. The 
statement in the Chronicle got involved in that 
cloud of unreality which overshadows so much of 
Alfred's history. 

Happily this particular point is now quite cleared 
up. A letter has been discovered, written by Leo 
IV., the reigning Pope in the year 853, and ad- 
dressed to King ^thelwulf, the father of Alfred, 
announcing the safe arrival of the boy. This 
discovery has added a new confirmation to the 
Chronicle, and has established it once for all as a 
firm historical fact, that Alfred was sent to Rome 

As a Writer 173 

in the year 853. If now we interpret this step in 
the most natural manner, as designed by his father 
to send the child out of the way in dangerous times, 
and to occupy his tender years with liberal studies, 
we find the course of Alfred's literary develop- 
ment well and reasonably accounted for. Indeed, 
it seems in every way most probable that Alfred 
enjoyed the best opportunities for study that the 
times afforded, and that he used them so far as was 
compatible with the vocation of a warrior. How 
many years he spent in Rome is not known ; in the 
reign of ^thered he was at home and he made a 
conspicuous military figure while yet in his teens, 
and this seems to indicate that he had never in his 
book-learning forgotten that he would have to fight 
for his country against the northern invaders. 

The first seven years of his own reign (871- 
878) were years of deadly struggle. In 877 his cause 
seemed to be lost, but in 878 the King of 
Wessex was victorious. He made peace with the 
conquered Danes, and their king, Guthrum, was 
baptized. And now he had to guide in peace the 
nation which he had guided in war. He had to 
reconstruct the social and political fabric which 
had been shattered by the devastations and panics 
of three generations. In all his reconstruction 
there is manifested a purpose not only of restora- 
tion, but also of improvement and reform. This 
is conspicuous in his revision of the West Saxon 

174 King Alfred 

Laws. The Law-book then in use was that of King 
Ina (688-726). When Alfred's code was published, 
that of Ina was not abolished, but it was re-edited 
in the same volume, after the manner of an appendix 
to Alfred's Laws. That a new departure was 
purposed is indicated by the new feature of a 
Prologue composed of the Decalogue and kindred 
selections from Scripture. This is to be under- 
stood partly as a consecration of the new Law- 
book ; but further, as the inauguration of a new 
principle, namely, that laws are founded in right 
reason and have their highest sanction in religion. 
Before Alfred's time laws had rested upon tradi- 
tion, deriving their force from the fact that they 
were ancestral, or if reasoned at all were based upon 
a stunted and barbaric type of reasoning. We 
happen to have an extant example in which we can 
compare a law of Ina's with Alfred's reform of it. 
In the case of damage to a wood, the old law drew 
a distinction between injury by fire and injury by 
the axe, and that by fire was punished far more 
heavily than the other, for this assigned reason that 
fire is a thief and works silently, whereas the axe 
announces itself. 

" In case any one burn a tree in a wood, and it 
come to light who did it, let him pay the full 
penalty, let him give sixty shillings, because fire is 
a thief. If one fell in a wood ever so many trees, 
and it be found out afterwards, let him pay for 

As a Writer 175 

three trees, each with thirty shillings. He is not 
required to pay for more of them, however many 
they might be, because the axe is a reporter and 
not a thief (forSon seo assc bij? melda, nalles 

This contrast could be retorted : for it might 
be urged that if fire is a thief relatively to the 
owner of the wood, so is it also relatively to the 
defendant, for it had started up afresh when he 
had left the place thinking that all was safe. The 
worst that could be proved upon him was the 
want of sufficient caution. In fact, the law is only 
good as against arson, wanton or malicious ; and 
for that case it is not severe enough. It may be 
assumed that in the bulk of cases damage by fire 
would be undesigned and accidental. 

But where the axe is used there can be no 
doubt about the motive. The man who fells 
another man's timber does so plainly with intent 
to steal, and the noise of the axe is not extenuating 
but rather aggravating by reason of its audacity. 

In Ina's law all such considerations were pre- 
vented by two venerable maxims which said, " Fire 
is a thief, but the axe is outspoken." Jacob 
Grimm, in his Antiquities of Law, produced some 
parallels from old German codes, but he gave the 
palm to this of ours for its poetic tinge. More- 
over, as an indication of the national instinct which 
is favourable to whatever is open and straightfor- 

176 King Alfred 

ward, it may be interesting ; but the distinction 
was bad as law, and it was abolished by King 
Alfred. His new law equalised the penalty thus : 
" If a man burn or hew another man's wood with- 
out leave, let him pay for every great tree with 
five shillings, and afterwards for each, let there be 
ever so many, with five pence ; and a fine of thirty 

The closing words of the king's Prologue are 
as follows : 

" I, Alfred the King, gathered these (laws) to- 
gether and ordered many to be written which our 
forefathers held, such as I approved, and many 
which I approved not I rejected, and had other 
ordinances enacted with the counsel of my Witan ; 
for I dared not venture to set much of my own 
upon the statute-book, for I knew not what might 
be approved by those who should come after us. 
But such ordinances as I found, either in the time 
of my kinsman Ina, or of OfFa, King of the Mer- 
cians, or of Ethelberht, who first received baptism 
in England such as seemed to me Tightest I have 
collected here, and the rest I have let drop. 

" I, then, Alfred, King of the West Saxons, 
showed these laws to all my Witan, and they then 
said that they all approved of them as proper to 
be holden." 

The same spirit of improvement and vigorous 
initiative is manifested in his famous translations. 





(Cot toman Library) 

As a Writer 177 

Either by his own knowledge or by the good 
advice which he knew how to obtain and appreciate, 
he selected from the books then accessible those 
which were calculated to be most generally useful 
to his people. The chief books were five, the pro- 
ductions of four authors : one by Orosius, written 
about A.D. 412 ; one by Boethius, of about A.D.. 
522 ; two by Gregory the Great, written towards 
A.D. 600 ; and one by the Venerable Bede, which 
was brought to a close in the year 731. It may 
be useful to add a few particulars about each of the 
works which appear to have constituted the select 
library of King Alfred. 

Orosius was a young priest who came out of 
Spain into Africa to visit Augustine, Bishop of 
Hippo, at the time when that Father of the Latin 
Church was writing his greatest work, which he 
entitled the City of God. The occasion for this work 
arose out of the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth 
in the year 410. A great outcry was made by the 
pagans against Christianity, as if it had been the 
cause of calamities which they attributed to the 
displeasure of the ancient gods for their neglected 
altars. In his City of God, which was conceived 
as an answer to this charge, Augustine constructed 
his argument upon a broad view of human history, 
urging that events must not be interpreted in an 
isolated manner, but must be taken with their 
connection and sequence ; and then we shall dis- 

1 78 King Alfred 

cern signs of a great providential purpose guiding 
mankind in a progressive course of amelioration. 
The old dispensation prepared men for a fuller 
revelation, and the spread of Christianity has 
brought manifest improvement in the condition of 
human life. The heathen empires of the world, 
as Babylon in the East and Rome in the West, 
have been active though unconscious factors in this 
vast and beneficent process. The book is in fact 
a philosophy of history, with the Gospel for its 
pivot, and all events subordinated to this master 
principle. The thesis is developed with an extra- 
ordinary wealth of reasoning and illustration. To 
make this great argument the more complete, Orosius 
undertook, at Augustine's request, to write a com- 
pendium of general history in the same spirit, and 
accordingly he loses no opportunity of showing up 
the calamities of the old heathen times, and in- 
dicating the tendency of Christianity to mitigate 
the horrors of war. This book of Orosius became 
the recognised manual of general history down to 
the sixteenth century. 

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius was 
the chief if not the sole representative of the 
philosophy, the ethics, and the religious aspirations 
of the ancients during the Dark and early Middle 
Ages. The author is thus introduced by Gibbon : 
4< The senator Boethius is the last of the Romans 
whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged 

As a Writer 179 

for their countryman." Suspected by Theodoric, 
the Gothic King of Italy, of the crime of Roman 
patriotism, he was cast into prison, and a sentence 
of confiscation and death was pronounced against 
him, while he was denied the means of making 
his defence. Chained and in view of death he 
composed the Consolation of Philosophy, of which 
Gibbon says : <c A golden volume, not unworthy 
of the leisure of Plato or Tully, but which claims 
incomparable merit from the barbarism of the 
times and the situation of the author." x 

Gregory the Great, who in A.D. 597 sent 
Augustine with his missionary band to the King 
of Kent, is a name which through the whole extent 
of Anglo-Saxon literature is mentioned with a 
peculiar veneration. From his writings the king 
took two books to be included in his library of 
English translations. The first was his Pastoral 
Care (Cura Pastoralis\ a guide-book for the use 
of the priest, to instruct the consciences of those 
who come to him for spiritual counsel ; and as 
it is the first, so it may safely be pronounced the 
best of all manuals of the kind. Gregory's ideal is 

1 It is a noted character of this book that while it contains much that is 
acceptable to the Christian spirit and nothing that is repugnant to it, there is 
not a word in it which might not have been written by a pagan of the sixth 
century who had inherited the influences of centuries of Christianity. Those 
who desire to know more about Boethius, and the various ancient translations 
of his last work, and his influence upon mediaeval thought, and the contro- 
versies of which he has been the occasion, should consult Bocthius, An Essay, 
by Hugh Eraser Stewart, M.A. ; Blackwood and Son, 1891. 

180 King Alfred 

a world governed by conscience, and the spirit of 
the Cura Pastoralis would transform all men 
into worthy citizens of such a polity. 

The other book of Gregory's which Alfred 
took was of a different kind. The Dialogues are 
stories of a sensational or even grotesque character, 
with a religious moral. They are calculated for a 
childish level of intelligence, and were designed to 
compete with the degrading tales which were the 
entertainment of barbarian circles. This book, 
which enjoyed the highest popularity for centuries, 
and was among the earliest books to be printed, is 
now entirely neglected, and Alfred's translation 
has not yet been edited. 

Bede was born in the neighbourhood of Wear- 
mouth in 672. In his seventh year he entered 
the abbey recently founded there by Benedict 
Biscop, who was the first abbot. In that and the 
sister house of Jarrow he continued to his death 
in 735. He wrote Hist or ia Ecclesiastica Gentis 
Anglorum, the History of the Conversion of the 
Angles and Saxons and of their Earliest Ecclesi- 
astical Institutions. No other national church 
possesses a history of equal merit. 1 This was the 
youngest book on Alfred's list, and as Orosius 

1 The only one to be compared with it is the History of Early Prankish 
Christianity, by Gregory, the Bishop of Tours, with which, indeed, it has 
been compared by Canon Bright, and the comparison is made in a generous 

A s a Writer 1 8 1 

was, what Pauli calls it, 1 a Chronicle of the World, 
so this was a History of England. 

I have thus endeavoured to give some idea of 
the books chosen by Alfred, as regards their rank 
and place in general literature. Our next step 
is to consider how Alfred dealt with these books 
and what he made of them. In his mind the 
translator's function was not to reproduce an 
ancient author, but to produce a useful work. 
How he treated Orosius may readily be seen by 
any one who will examine the latest edition of the 
translation, that by Dr. Sweet (Early English Text 
Society). He hit upon the admirable plan of 
printing opposite the translation the corresponding 
portions of the Latin text, using italics for such 
parts of the original as are not literally translated. 
How great was the freedom of adaptation is 
promptly seen by the swarms of italics with which 
the Latin pages are bespangled. Besides these 
adaptations there are substantial additions in the 
shape of original contributions by King Alfred to 
the knowledge of European geography. First there 
is a map-like description of the nations of Central 
and Northern Europe, which are comprised under 
the name of Germania. The author begins with 

1 Konig Alfred und seine Stelle in der Geschichte Englands, von Dr. Rein- 
hold Pauli, Berlin, 1851. The Life of Alfred the Great, Translated from 
the German of Dr. R. Pauli. To which is appended Alfred's Anglo-Saxon 
version of Orosius. With a literal English translation, etc. London, 
1853. (Bonn's Antiquarian Library.) 

1 82 King Alfred 

a sketch of his area : by east and west, from the 
Don to the sea about Britain ; by north and south, 
from the Danube and Euxine to the White Sea. 
Coming to details, he starts with the East Franks 
(whose land-mark and memorial now Jives in 
Frankfort), and with these East Franks for a 
centre he gives the relative positions of Swabians, 
Bavarians, Bohemians, and Thuringians, to the 
north of whom lie the Old Saxons, who are bounded 
on the west by Elbe-mouth and Friesland. From 
this point the Old Saxons become the pivot of the 

This new piece of geographical literature is 
followed by two narratives of northern voyagers : 
Oht-here, who had explored the coast of Norway 
from where is now Christiania to far round the 
North Cape ; and Wulfstan, who explored the 
southern coasts of the Baltic, and describes the 
strange customs of the Esthonians. 

These three pieces taken together constitute one 
homologous group of ninth-century geography, 
which fully justifies Reinhold Pauli's estimate, that 
the " Germania " of Alfred is more extensive and 
better defined than the "Germania" of Tacitus. 

Besides this large insertion there are several 
smaller ones in the course of the work, and these 
may easily be found by observing where blanks 
occur on the Latin page of Dr. Sweet's edition. 
Where Orosius tells how M. Fabius refused a 

As a Writer 1 8 3 

Triumph when it was offered to him by the Senate, 
the translator inserts two paragraphs, one describ- 
ing a Roman Triumph, and the other relating the 
origin and functions of the Roman Senate. In 
Caesar's invasion of Britain, where Orosius tells how 
he reached the river Thames, which (says he) is ford- 
able in one place only ; the translator adds that the 
ford is now called Wallingford. In such occasional 
insertions we see the beginnings of that vast 
apparatus of modern learning which is now relegated 
to footnotes or to separate books of reference. 

The conditions under which Boethius produced 
that unique work The Consolation of Philosophy 
may have tended to give the book a special attrac- 
tion for the mind of the trouble-tossed king. He 
certainly seems to have made great use of the book 
as a text for his own reflections and meditations. 
" For although King Alfred professed to translate 
the work of Boethius, yet he inserted in various 
parts many of his own thoughts and feelings," etc. 
These are the words of one who up to the moment of 
writing was the latest editor of Alfred's Boethius ; J 
but now he must share the ground with Mr. 
Sedgefield, whose new and greatly improved text 
has just issued from the Clarendon Press. On 

1 King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon Version of Bcethius, etc. By the Rev. Samuel 
Fox, M.A., 1864. (Bohn's Antiquarian Library.) This book will continue 
to be in request, because of the translation which faces the Anglo-Saxon 

1 84 King Alfred 

Alfred's manner of dealing with his originals 
Mr. Sedgefield says : " Even in his most faithful 
translation, that of the Cura Pastoralis^ King 
Alfred is by no means what in these days would be 
called literal ; while in his Boethius it is the 
exception to find a passage of even a few lines 
rendered word for word." And, we may add, it 
is precisely this free handling which gives to the 
king's translations their personal interest, and no- 
where is this peculiar attraction so strongly felt as 
in his adaptation of Boethius. 

German research has somewhat modified the 
inference which ascribed to Alfred everything in 
his version which is not found in the text. Old 
Latin commentaries and scholia upon the De Con- 
solatione have been discovered in continental 
libraries, which contain similar expansions, especi- 
ally those in the direction of Christian doctrine. 
This discovery enlarges the literary interest, with 
small detraction from the work of the king. His 
glory is not of a kind to rise and fall by little 
gradations of more or less. The suggestions 
supplied by these commentaries are in their nature 
very obvious. For, as was observed by Mr. Stewart, 
the most casual reader of Boethius cannot fail to 
be struck with the strong theism which breathes 
through his pages, and invites the touch of para- 
phrase to give it the full Christian sound, as when 
the city of Truth, from which Boethius represents 

As a Writer 

i8 5 

himself as exiled, becomes under the translator's 
hand the heavenly Jerusalem ; a thought which is 
expressed in the recently discovered scholia. But 
in Lib. ii. metr. 4, where the translator brings in 
the striking sentence, " Christ dwelleth in the vale 
of Humility and at the monumental stone of 
Wisdom," the old Latin annotator contributes only 
this " The stone is Christ." Of the famous simile 
which likens the world to an egg, there is this 
much found in the scholia "That the sky and 
the earth and the sea are in configuration like an 
egg." See how this is developed by the poet : l 

Du gestaSoladest Thou didst establish 

]?urh ]?a strongan meaht, through strong might, 

weroda wuldor cyning, 

eorSan swa faeste 

J>aet hio on aenige 
healfe ne heldeS, 

ne maeg hio hider ne }?ider 
sigan J?e swiSor 

J?e hio symle dyde. 
Hwaet hi ]?eah eorSlices 

auht ne haldeS, 
is }>eah efn ej>e 

up and of dune 
to feallanne 

foldan J>isse : 
]?aem anlicost 

Je on aege biS 

1 The characters 

glorious king of hosts, 

the earth so fast 

that she on any 
side heeleth not, 

nor can hither or thither 
any more decline 

than she ever did. 
Lo nothing earthly 

at all sustains her, 
it is equally easy 

upwards and downwards 
that there should be a fall 

of this earth : 
likest in fashion to 

how in an egg 

and B S are of identical value, meaning TH th. 

1 86 King Alfred 

gioleca on middan, middlemost is the yolk, 

glideS hwae]?re and withal gliding free 

aeg ymbutan . the egg round about. 

Swa stent call weoruld So standeth the world 

stille on tille, still in its place, 

streamas ymbutan, while streaming around, 

lagufloda gelac, water-floods play, 

lyfte and tungla, welkin and stars, 

and sio scire scell and the shining shell 

scriSeS ymbutan circleth about 

dogora gehwilce ; day by day now 

dyde lange swa . as it did long ago. 

Book iii. metre 9 ; p. 182, ed. Sedgefield. 

This simile occurs only in the poetical version 
of the Metres, for there are two versions, one in 
prose and another in verse, and it is agreed that 
the versification has been done after and from the 
prose ; but there is a question (into which we 
cannot now enter) whether Alfred is the author of 
both, or only of the prose version. 

But before we quit Alfred's Boethius, we must 
notice his treatment of Lib. ii. prosa 7, where we 
may discover something more than free handling. 
In the first three lines of that section he found a 
profession of disinterestedness which he could 
honestly appropriate to himself. The Latin speaks 
thus : " Thou knowest, said I, that I was never 
governed by the ambition of transitory wealth. 
But material for action I did covet, that my talents 
might not rust in idleness." Upon these lines for a 

As a Writer 187 

text the king made his chapter xvii., in which it 
is evident that he forgets Boethius and speaks for 
himself and of himself throughout. Applying 
his author's words to himself, he expands them 
into a veritable apology, explaining why a king 
needs a great revenue, and ending thus : "I resolved 
to live honourably as long as I lived, and after my 
time to leave to the men who should come after 
me my memorial in good works." 

Now we come to the translation of the Cur a 
Pastoralis, a work of high and manifold interest. 1 
A copy of it was sent to every bishop in England. 
The very copy which was addressed to Werferth, 
Bishop of Worcester, is still in our possession. It 
is preserved in the Bodleian Library, and may be 
seen under glass by every visitor. This wonderful 
relic, like the Alfred Jewel, seems to bring us into 
personal contact with the great king himself. 

In Alfred's Epistle to the bishops, which forms 
his Preface to the Pastoralis, the mind of the king 
is laid open in a very remarkable manner. Among 
the many precious evidences which time has spared 
for the perpetuation of a noble memory, the first 
place must certainly (on the whole) be accorded to 
this Preface. It exhibits in the clearest light the 
reflections of the king upon the past and present 

1 King Alfreds West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, with an 
English translation, etc. By Henry Sweet, Esq., Balliol College, Oxford, 
1871 and 1872. (Early English Text Society.) 

1 88 King Alfred 

condition of his country, his deep sense of the vast 
losses that had been sustained, his meditation on 
the means of repair at his command, and the direc- 
tion of his thoughts to that which is the only root 
of effective reform, an enlightened and instructed 
national conscience. In his contemplation of this 
vital principle, he perceives the value of religious 
education, and the necessity of beginning there. 
At this point his discourse enters more into detail, 
the practical drift of which is, that the Latin schools 
being lost, and being (for the present at least) ir- 
replaceable, it will be necessary to institute a system 
of education through the medium of the English 
language. Some scholars thought that education 
could only be properly conducted through Latin, 
and that the vernacular would lower its dignity 
and value. They could not wholly approve of the 
method of translations. Here Alfred had nearly 
the same battle to fight as Jerome fought before 
him, and in his apology he drew materials from 
Jerome's store, adding the further inference that 
if Scripture might be had in the vulgar tongue, why 
not other good books ? 

Children (he thought) should be taught to read 
English, and this elementary stage of education 
should be common to all of free birth. For the sons 
of those who could afford to prolong the education 
of their children, Latin studies should follow, and 
such boys should be trained for the higher offices. 

As a Writer 189 

Here the English basis of education is propounded 
as a course which was dictated by necessity ; but if 
ever it should be demonstrated that this course is 
absolutely the best, the credit of having been the 
first to open the right path must not on that 
account be denied to King Alfred. In the good old 
times, Wessex had been far behind Northumbria 
in the culture of the classics, but this had led to a 
fuller development of the vernacular, and Alfred 
found his mother tongue not inadequate to the 
occasion, and large specimens of Latin literature 
were rendered in West Saxon, and thus it happened 
that the dialect of Wessex became to the after 
literature of England what the Attic dialect was 
to the literature of Greece. 

The king's letter to the bishops begins thus : 



Alfred, king, commandeth to greet Wserferth, bishop, 
with his words in loving and friendly wise : and I would 
have you informed that it has often come into my re- 
membrance, what wise men there formerly were among 
the Angle race, both of the sacred orders and the secular ; 
and how happy times those were throughout the Angle 
race ; and how the kings who had the government of the 
folk in those days obeyed God and His messengers ; and 
they on the one hand maintained their peace and their 
customs and their authority within their borders, while at 
the same time they spread their territory outwards ; and 

1 90 King Alfred 

how it then went well with them both in war and in 
wisdom ; and likewise the sacred orders, how earnest they 
were, as well about teaching as about learning, and about 
all the services that they owed to God ; and how people 
from abroad came to this land for wisdom and instruction ; 
and how we now should have to get them abroad if we 
were going to have them. So clean was it fallen away 
in the Angle race, that there were very few on this 
side Humber who would know how to render their ser- 
vices in English, or just read off an epistle out of Latin 
into English ; and I wean that not many would be on 
the other side Humber. So few of them were there that 
I cannot think of so much as a single one south of 
Thames when I took to the realm. God Almighty be 
thanked that we have now any teachers in office. 

Moreover, the king called also to mind what he 
had himself seen in his early days, before all the 
harryings and burnings of recent times : how the 
churches of England had been well stored with 
books, and the clergy were numerous, but they had 
profited little by the books, because they could not 
understand them, as they were not written in their 
own language. At this point his eloquence rises 
to a dramatic pitch, and " It is," he breaks out, " as 
if they had said : ' Our ancestors, who were the 
masters of these sacred places, they loved wisdom, 
and by means of it they acquired wealth and left 
it to us. Here may yet be seen their traces, but 
we are not able to walk in their steps, forasmuch 
as we have now lost both the wealth and the 

A s a Writer 1 9 1 

wisdom, because we were not willing to bend our 
minds to that pursuit.' ' Remembering all this, 
he had marvelled very exceedingly at those good 
scholars who were once so frequent in England, 
men who had completely mastered the Latin books, 
that they had not been willing to translate any part 
of them into their own language. But he soon 
answered himself and said, that they never could 
have anticipated the present utter decay, and it was 
their very zeal for learning which caused them to 
abstain from translating, because they thought 
that the path of education and knowledge lay 
through the study of languages. 

Then I remembered how the law of Moses was first 
known in Hebrew ; and later, when the Greeks had 
learned it, they translated it into their own language, and 
all other books too. And later still the Latin people in 
the same manner, they by means of wise interpreters, 
translated all the books into their own speech. And so 
also did all the other Christian nations translate some 
portion of the books into their own speech. 

Therefore to me it seemeth better, if it seemeth so to 
you, that we also some books, those that most needful are 
for all men to be acquainted with, that we turn those into 
the speech which we all can understand, and that ye do 
as we very easily may with God's help, if we have the 
requisite peace, that all the youth which now is in Eng- 
land of free men, of those who have the means to be able 
to go in for it, be set to learning, while they are fit for 
no other business, until such time as they can thoroughly 

192 King Alfred 

read English writing : afterwards further instruction may 
be given in the Latin language to such as are intended 
for a more advanced education, and are to be prepared for 
higher office. As I then reflected how the teaching of 
the Latin language had recently decayed throughout this 
people of the Angles, and yet many could read English 
writing, then began I among other various and manifold 
businesses of this kingdom to turn into English the book 
that is called Pastor -alts in Latin, and Hierdeboc (Shepherd- 
ing-Book) in English, sometimes word for word, some- 
times sense for sense, just as I learned it of Plegmund 
my archbishop, and of Asser my bishop, and of Grim- 
bald my priest, and of John my priest. After I had 
learned it so that I understood it and could render it 
with fullest meaning, I translated it into English ; and 
to each see in my kingdom I will send one ; and on each 
there is an "aestel" (on aelcre bi?5 an aestel), which is 
of the value of 50 mancuses. And I command in the 
name of God that no man remove the " aestel " from the 
book, nor the book from the minster. No one knows 
how long such learned bishops may be there, as now, 
thank God ! there are in several places ; and therefore I 
would that they (the books) should always be at the 
place ; unless the bishop should wish to have it with him, 
or it should be anywhere on loan, or any one should be 
writing another copy. 

It has never been satisfactorily decided what kind 
of object is meant by the "aestel" which accom- 
panied every one of the presentation copies of the 
Hierdeboc. Dr. Sweet translates thus : " And 
on each there is a clasp worth fifty mancus. And 

As a Writer 193 

I command in God's name that no man take the 
clasp from the book, or the book from the 
minster." Dr. Bosworth, in his Dictionary, ex- 
plained aestel as a writing-tablet, and identified the 
word with " astula " in Du Cange. Now it is not 
easy to see the propriety of combining so personal 
a thing as a note-book with a volume designed for 
common use. Nor could such an object be a 
fixture upon the great book, which is what the 
king's phrase (on aelcre bis) seems to require. On 
the other hand, Dr. Sweet's clasp is indeed a fixture, 
but of such a kind as to be a part of the book 
itself which could not be removed without wilful 
mutilation, and it does not appear that the king in 
his injunction is apprehensive of so flagrant an 
outrage as that. 

My own impression is that the clue to the 
interpretation is furnished by a Glossary of the 
eleventh century, which gives " indicatorium " as 
the equivalent of asstel (Wright-Wulker, i. 327). 
I imagine a marker either of metal or of wood 
with metal fittings, so constructed as to be fixed 
upon the binding, and to bring a small plank across 
the page wherever desired. This would keep the 
parchment flat when apt to buckle, would mark 
the reader's or transcriber's place, and would mini- 
mise the risk of injury by fingering. It would be 
attached to one of the boards only in a movable 
way, perhaps with a screw, and consequently would 


i 94 King Alfred 

require a strict and imperative rule to secure it 
from misplacement. The derivation might well be 
from "astula" ( = assula). 

This great epistolary Preface is followed by a 
second, of another theme and another type. The 
first is conceived in the statesmanlike spirit of a 
king who is meditating of civil order and educa- 
tion in a country that has almost lapsed into bar- 
barism. The second is the utterance of the literary 
artist concerning the book he has translated, the 
author and his merits, and the weight of his 
authority, not disregarding the history and trans- 
mission of the very codex over which he has been 
at work. The first of these prefaces is in strong 
and ragged prose ; the second is in heroic verse, 
which recalls the tradition that Alfred was fond of 
the old songs of his native land. 

Pis aerendgewrit Agustinus 
ofer sealtne sas suSan brohte 
ieg-buendum, swa hit aer fore 
adihtode drihtnes cempa 
5 Rome papa. Ryhtspell monig 
Gregorius gleawmod gind wod 
Surh sefan snythro searoSonca hord. 
ForSasm he monncynnes maest gestriende 
rodra wearde, Romwara betest, 
10 monna modwelegost, maerSum gefraegost. 

SiSSan min on Englisc Alfred kyning 
awende worda gehwelc, and me his writerum 
sende su'5 and norS ; heht him swelcra ma 

As a Writer 195 

brengan bi Ssere bisene, Saet he his biscepum 
15 sendan meahte forSaem hi his sume Sorften, 
Sa Se Laedenspraece laeste cuSon. 

I append an alliterative translation, which runs 
almost line for line : 

This epistle Augustine 
over salt sea brought from the south 
to us island-dwellers, just as it erst 
indited had been by Christ's doughty soldier 
5. the Roman pontiff". Much right discourse 
did Gregory of glowing wit give forth apace 
with skilful soul, a hoard of studious thought. 
He of mankind converted the most 
to the Ruler of heaven : he of Romans the best, 
10. of men the most learned and widest admired. 

At length into English, Alfred the King 
wended 1 my every word: and me to his writers 
south and north sent out ; more copies of such 
he bade them bring back, that he to his bishops 
15. might send, for some of them needed it, 

those who with Latin speech had least acquaintance. 

A few notes may be useful here. In the first 
line the expression " This epistle" applies to the 
entire work, because it is addressed by Gregory to 
John, Bishop of Ravenna, and opens with a dedica- 
tion in epistolary form. 

The poet has a warm feeling for the very 

1 My excuse for using an obsolete word is that it is Alfred's own, and I could 
not do without it. Moreover, I was fortified by the hope that some poet 
might adopt it and revive its transitival use. 

196 King Alfred 

manuscript he has been bending over, which he 
venerates as a sacred relic, because it was one of 
the books which were brought to this island by 
Augustine, Gregory's chosen missionary. 

In lines 8-10 is there not a reminiscence of the 
closing lines of the Beowulf? 

At verse 1 1 there is an abrupt transition, and 
the after part is in an altered manner. The book 
itself becomes the speaker, and in the diction we 
recognise the manner of him who dictated to his 
goldsmith the now famous legend : 


In line 1 2 we should particularly note the asser- 
tion which is couched in the words " awende worda 
gehwelc," a marked and idiomatic phrase which may 
be represented in Latin thus : " vertit verborum 
quodque," i.e. translated every word. This does not 
point to any rule or restriction in the manner of 
rendering, as if the translator had tasked himself 
to a verbal fidelity, for in his first preface, speak- 
ing of this very work, he had plainly said that he 
had sometimes rendered word by word and some- 
times sense for sense (hwilum word be worde, 
hwilum andgit of andgite). But what he meant to 
say was this, that whereas in his other translations 
he had used his originals as passive material to be 
wrought upon and converted as his own design and 
purpose guided him, he had treated Gregory's 

As a Writer 197 

Pastoral Care as he would treat Scripture, wherein 
nothing could be added nor taken away. 

To conclude the subject of Alfred's Gregory's 
Pastoral Care, let it be noted, that not only is it 
one of the books which are said to have been trans- 
lated by the king, but the statement is made by 
himself speaking in the first person, and with a 
singular circumstantiality, and that besides this the 
book is distinguished by three peculiar incidents : 
(i) That the translation was entire ; (2) that a 
copy of it was sent to every bishop ; (3) that the 
king was pleased to celebrate the memorable history 
of the copy upon which he had worked. 

As the chief of Alfred's translations the 
Hierdeboc has naturally taken up much of our space, 
and we must now be brief on the Dialogues. 
And indeed we have the less to say because the 
Alfredian version has not yet been edited. 1 It 
exists in three manuscripts of the eleventh century, 
one in the Cotton Library, and the other two at 
Oxford and Cambridge. This translation is re- 
puted to have been made by Werferth, Bishop of 
Worcester, but the authority for this statement is 
late and of doubtful value. There is no mention 
of it in the preface, where the king speaks in the 
first person, and acknowledges the services of friends 
who had acted as transcribers. It runs thus : 

1 It is said that a critical edition, based upon the three manuscripts, is in 
preparation by Herr Hans Hecht. 

198 King Alfred 

" I, Alfred, by the grace of Christ, dignified with 
the honour of royalty, have assuredly understood, 
and through the reading of holy books have often 
heard, that we to whom God hath given so much 
eminence of worldly distinction, have peculiar need 
at times to humble and subdue our minds to the 
divine and spiritual law, in the midst of this earthly 
anxiety ; and I accordingly sought and requested 
of my trusty friends that they for me, out of pious 
books about the conversation and miracles of holy 
men, would transcribe the instruction that herein- 
after followeth : that I, through the admonition 
and love being strengthened in my mind, may 
now and then contemplate the heavenly things in 
the midst of these earthly troubles." 

Such is the preface in the two manuscripts at 
Oxford and Cambridge ; but in lieu of this the 
Cotton manuscript has a preface in high-pitched 
archaic and stilted prose wherein the book speaks 
and sets forth that it was transcribed by order of 
a Bishop Wulfstan from a copy that was given him 
by King Alfred, whose name is glorified with 
romantic superlatives of eulogy. This is poor 
apocryphal stuff, but yet as a glimpse at the 
posthumous cultus of Alfred's fame it is interest- 
ing and even valuable. 1 

Bede's History was the most modern of the 
books on Alfred's list. In this book the translator 

1 This bizarre composition was published by Dr. Krebs in Anglia, iii. (1880). 

As a Writer 1 99 

omitted considerable sections and added none. 
There is no contemporary record that the trans- 
lator was King Alfred. The earliest extant state- 
ment of the kind is in ^Elfric's Homily on St. 
Gregory's Day, where the preacher, referring to 
" Historia Anglorum," as he calls it, adds, " which 
King Alfred translated out of Latin into English." 
Though a hundred years later, this is nevertheless 
excellent testimony, and it has been supported 
both by later historians and until recently by 
modern critics. 

But now the latest editor, 1 Mr. Thomas Miller, 
has pointed out some radical differences of dialect 
between the West Saxon of the Cura Pastoratis 
and the English of this translation, which he 
locates in the northern part of Mercia. He is 
further guided by certain ecclesiastical considera- 
tions (especially the contents of the parts omitted) 
to select Litchfield as the spot where the translation 
was probably made. The evidence is too multi- 
farious to be stated here, but it seems worthy to 
receive a searching examination and discussion. 

So far we have treated of the more conspicuous 
and better-known of the king's writings ; we must 
now make mention of his minor works. In 
" The Shrine : a Collection of Occasional Papers 
on Dry Subjects," which appeared at irregular 

1 Yet there is a later edition proceeding from the press, by Dr. Schipper, 
Professor of English at Vienna. 

2OO King Alfred 

intervals from 1864 to 1870, the Rev. Oswald 
Cockayne published for the first time two works 
which claim to rank among Alfredian literature. 
These he entitled, King Mlf red's Book of Martyrs 
and Blooms by King ALlfred. 

The Blooms are a translation or adaptation of 
Augustine's Soliloquies and his Epistle to Paulina 
on the Vision of God, intermingled with extracts 
from the City of God and from Gregory, and from 
Jerome, and withal many passages that appear to 
be original. The English of the book is a debased 
Saxon of the twelfth century. The title Blooms 
is a translation of " blostman," which is repeatedly 
used of the work in the Anglo-Saxon text. There 
is a preface, in which the work is spoken of under 
another figure that of collecting material to build 
a house. At the close we read, " Here end the 
sayings which King Alfred collected." Lappen- 
berg classed the book (then unprinted) among the 
apocryphal works of the king, and Pauli thought 
that some compiler of the twelfth century had used 
the name of the king whose memory was still 
dear to the people. But in 1877 Professor 
Wu'lker took it up, and he soon changed the 
aspect of the case. He showed, in a highly con- 
vincing manner, that this book has an intimate 
relation with Alfred's Botthius, that it carries on 
an argument which was broached there, and that 
the two books must be from the same hand. His 

As a Writer 201 

inference is that it was done after the Boethius y 
and that it was (apparently) the latest work upon 
which the king was engaged. In 1894 the affinity 
between the two books was further confirmed by 
Mr. Frank G. Hubbard in Modern Language 
Notes. Specially convincing are two brief touches 
in chapter xvii., which echo the argument of the 
similarly numbered chapter in Alfred's Boethius 
which I have called an apology. The book is in 
an imperfect state. 

The Book of Martyrs is also imperfect, begin- 
ning at December 31 with St. Columba, and 
ending with St. Thomas, December 2 1 . The first 
day of January is called " the eighth Yule day " (se 
eahteSa geohhel daeg). There are four manu- 
scripts of this book, and one of them, a fragment 
of two leaves, appears to be of Alfred's time. 
Moreover, of the saints which are recorded none 
are later than the ninth century. Another argu- 
ment is that under November 15 is given a Life 
of St. Milus, which must (says Cockayne) have been 
brought direct from Syria to England, and prob- 
ably from Helias, the patriarch of Jerusalem, with 
whom Alfred had a correspondence, according to 
the nearly contemporary Leech Book. These 
evidences appear to Wiilker to justify the conclu- 
sion of Cockayne, " that the Martyr Book here 
presented was at least in use in Alfred's time, and 
was probably then composed." 

202 King Alfred 

We must now mention some titles of books 
imputed to the king. By the third generation 
after Alfred the tradition of his literary activity 
had already assumed mythical proportions. The 
Latin historian ^thelweard says that nobody 
knows how many volumes he produced (volumina 
numero ignoto}. William of Malmesbury says that 
at the time of his death he was working at a trans- 
lation of the Psalter. There, is a poetical work of 
maxims and proverbs in which each of the detached 
sentences begins with " Thus said Alfred." This 
book opens with an assembly of notables at Seaford, 
presided over by King Alfred, the Shepherd and 
Darling of England. These Proverbs of Alfred 
appear to be a composition of the twelfth century. 
Moreover, he is said to have translated into English 
the Fables of JEsop. He is also credited with a 
treatise on Falconry. 

But if in one direction the tradition has reached 
a fabulous extreme, it is possible, on the other 
hand, that there may still remain something of 
his which has been overlooked or has not been 
adequately recognised. I allude to the Saxon 
Chronicle, about the king's relation to which there 
is doubtless more to be said than has yet found a 
place in literature. To speak but of one section 
I never can read the annals of 893-897 without 
seeming to hear the voice of King Alfred. Among 
the illuminations of the approaching anniversary, 

As a Writer 203 

we may hope that a clearer light will be shed upon 
this interesting question. 

The Will of Alfred is a very remarkable docu- 
ment, and opens to us more than might be expected 
of family arrangements as to property. That 
coupling of the names of JE)?ered and Alfred which 
has such a singular and conspicuous appearance 
in the Chronicle receives some very practical illus- 
tration. There were at that time no professional 
men to make Wills, and we have no cause to doubt 
that the diction is Alfred's, as it purports to be, 
being indited in the first person. There is much 
in this document to provoke inquiry and research, 
and it would probably repay the diligent student for 
a closer investigation than it has hitherto received. 

In our time when books are freely produced in 
great abundance, it is hard to appreciate the power 
and originality of King Alfred's work in the field 
of literature. When we look about for his motives 
we find such as these : need of occasional retire- 
ment and solace in the midst of harassing affairs, 
desire for personal improvement and edification, 
strong intellectual appetites, etc. but all these con- 
trolled by one chief and dominant purpose, that 
of national education. Looking at the external 
aspect of the king's situation we might have judged 
it sufficient for him at that time to concentrate his 
energies upon the restoration of material prosperity 
and the strengthening of the national armaments. 

204 King Alfred 

That the prior necessity of these was not over- 
looked, we have ample proof in the subsequent 
progress of Wessex. But this did not satisfy the 
kingly ambition of Alfred ; he craved for his 
people the higher benefits of political life, their 
moral and intellectual and spiritual development. 
Curiosity may well prick us to ask from what 
source far-reaching aims like these so suddenly 
burst into our history, and that, too, at a time 
of exhaustion at home and apprehension from 
abroad. If King Alfred saw a connection be- 
tween general education and the acquisition of 
wealth (as there is some indication that he did), 
this may partly explain the energy of his educa- 
tional policy, but we still desiderate something 
more. .If we might assume that being under a 
strong sense of what he had himself gained by his 
early education, he desired to impart the like advan- 
tages to his people, then and only then the problem 
would find its appropriate and adequate solution. 

The beginnings of modern education in the 
seventh century were quickened with the sense that 
something had been lost, and the whole movement 
was coloured with the sentiment of retrieval and 
recovery. Two great historical exhibitions of this 
effort are displayed in the Latin schools of Anglia 
and of Charlemagne, which are in fact but two parts 
of one movement, linked together by the name of 

As a Writer 205 

King Alfred's educational revival is isolated 
from the preceding by the wars and desolations 
of the Wicingas, and it starts with a new basis 
in the installation of the mother tongue as the 
medium of elementary teaching. To this innova- 
tion it is due that we alone of all European nations 
have a fine vernacular literature in the ninth and 
tenth and eleventh centuries. And the domestic 
culture of that era, I take it, was the cause why 
the great French immigration which followed in 
the wake of the Norman Conquest did not finally 
swamp the English language. 



T first sight Anglo-Saxon law may 
appear merely barbarous to the 
modern reader. In order to be 
just to it we must consider its 

Anglo-Saxon life was rough and crude as com- 
pared not only with any modern standard but with 
the amount of civilisation which survived, or had 
been recovered, on the Continent. There was 
very little foreign trade, not much internal traffic, 
nothing like industrial business of any kind on a 
large scale, and (it need hardly be said) no system 
of credit. Such conditions gave no room for 
refined legal science applied by elaborate legal 
machinery, such as those of the Roman Empire 
had been and those of modern England and the 
commonwealths that have sprung from her were 

1 A chapter from a work in preparation, reprinted here, with some 
omissions and alterations, from the Law Quarterly Re-view. 


2 1 o King Alfred 

to be. Such as the men were, such had to be the 
rules and methods whereby some kind of order 
was kept among them. Our ancestors before the 
Norman Conquest lived under a judicial system, if 
system it can be called, as rudimentary in substance 
as it was cumbrous in form. They sought justice, 
as a rule, at their primary local court, the court of 
the hundred, which met once a month, and for 
greater matters at a higher and more general court, 
the county court, which met only twice a year, 
except, perhaps, for merely formal business. We 
say purposely met rather than sat. The courts 
were open-air meetings of the freemen who were 
bound to attend them, the suitors as they are 
called in the terms of Anglo-Norman and later 
medieval law ; there was no class of professional 
lawyers ; there were no judges in our sense of 
learned persons specially appointed to preside, ex- 
pound the law, and cause justice to be done ; the only 
learning available was that of the, bishops, abbots, 
and other great ecclesiastics. This learning, 
indeed, was all the more available and influential 
because, before the Norman Conquest, there were 
no separate ecclesiastical courts in England. There 
were no clerks nor, apparently, any permanent 
officials of the popular courts ; their judgments 
proceeded from the meeting itself, not from its 
presiding officer, and were regularly preserved only 
in the memory of the suitors. A modern student 

'English Law before Norman Conquest 2 1 1 

or man of business will at first sight wonder how 
this rude and scanty provision for judicial affairs 
can have sufficed even in the Dark Ages. But 
when we have reflected on the actual state of 
Anglo-Saxon society, we may be apt to think that 
at times the hundred and the county court found 
too little to do rather than too much. The 
materials for what we now call civil business 
practically did not exist. 

There is now no doubt among scholars that the 
primary court was the hundred court. If the 
township had any regular meeting (which is quite 
uncertain), that meeting was not a judicial body. 
The King, on the other hand, assisted by his 
Council of wise men, the Witan, 1 had a superior 
authority in reserve. It was allowable to seek 
justice at the king's hands if one had failed, after 
due diligence, to obtain it in the hundred or the 
county court. Moreover the Witan assumed 
jurisdiction in the first instance where land granted 
by the king was in question, and perhaps in other 
cases where religious foundations or the king's 
great men were concerned. Several examples of 
such proceedings are recorded, recited as we should 
say in modern technical speech, in extant land- 
charters which declare and confirm the result of 

1 There is more authority for this short form than for the fuller Witenn- 
Gemot (not witenagemot as sometimes mispronounced by persons ignorant 
of Old-English inflexions). 

212 King Alfred 

disputes, and therefore we know more of them 
than we do of the ordinary proceedings in the 
county and hundred courts, of which no written 
record was kept. But they can have had very little 
bearing, if any, on the daily lives of the smaller 
folk. In important cases, the county court might 
be strengthened by adding the chief men of other 
counties ; and, when thus reinforced, there is hardly 
anything to distinguish it from the Witan save 
that the king is not there in person. 1 The king 
might act as arbitrator or give advice to his 
immediate dependents to compromise their suits ; 
but there was no regular way of appealing from the 
judgments of the popular courts. 

Some considerable time before the Norman 
Conquest, but how long is not known, bishops and 
other great men had acquired the right of holding 
courts of their own and taking the profits in the 
shape of fines and fees, or what would have been 
the king's share of the profits. My own belief is 
that this began very early, but there is no actual 
proof of it. Twenty years after the Conquest, 
at any rate, we find private jurisdiction con- 
stantly mentioned in the Domesday Survey, and 
common in every part of England : about the 
same time, or very shortly afterwards, it was re- 

1 Such a court, after the Conquest, was that which restored and confirmed 
the rights of the see of Canterbury on Penenden Heath : but it was held 
under a very special writ from the king. 

ILnglish Law before Norman Conquest 213 

cognised as a main ingredient in the complex and 
artificial system of feudalism. After having grown 
in England, as elsewhere, to the point of threaten- 
ing the king's supremacy, but having happily found 
in Edward I. a master such as it did not find else- 
where before the time of Richelieu, the manorial 
court is still with us in a form attenuated almost 
to the point of extinction. It is not material for 
the later history of English law to settle exactly 
how far the process of concession or encroachment 
had gone in the time of Edward the Confessor, or 
how fast its rate was increasing at the date of the 
Conquest. There can be no doubt that on the one 
hand it had gained and was gaining speed before 
" the day when King Edward was alive and dead," ] 
or on the other hand that it was further accelerated 
and emphasised under rulers who were familiar 
with a more advanced stage of feudalism on the 
Continent. But this very familiarity helped to 
make them wise in time ; and there was at least 
some foreshadowing of royal supremacy in existing 
English institutions. Although the courts of the 
hundred and the county were not the king's courts, 
the king was bound by his office to exercise some 
general supervision over their working. He was 
represented in the county court by the sheriff; he 
might send out commissioners to inquire and report 
how justice was done, though he could not inter- 

1 The common form of reference in Domesday Book. 

214 King Alfred 

fere with the actual decisions. The efficiency of 
these powers varied in fact according to the king's 
means and capacity for exercising them. Under a 
wise and strong ruler like Alfred or jEthelstan 
they might count for much ; under a feeble one 
like ^Ethelred they could count for very little. 

A modern reader fresh to the subject might 
perhaps expect to find that the procedure of the 
old popular courts was loose and informal. In 
fact it was governed by traditional rules of the 
most formal and unbending kind. Little as we 
know of the details, we know enough to be sure 
of this ; and it agrees with all the evidences we 
have of the early history of legal proceedings else- 
where. The forms become not less but more 
stringent as we pursue them to a higher antiquity ; 
they seem to have not more but less appreciable 
relation to any rational attempt to ascertain the 
truth in disputed matters of fact. That task, in- 
deed, appears to have been regarded as too hard or 
too dangerous to be attempted by unassisted 
human faculties. All the accustomed modes of 
proof involved some kind of appeal to supernatural 
sanctions. The simplest was the oath of one of the 
parties, not by way of testimony to particular facts, 
but by way of assertion of his whole claim or de- 
fence ; and this was fortified by the oaths of a 
greater or less number of helpers, according to the 
nature of the case and the importance of the persons 

TLnglish Law before Norman Conquest 2 1 5 

concerned, who swore with him that his oath was 
true. He lost his cause without a chance of 
recovery if any slip was made in pronouncing the 
proper forms, or if a sufficient number of helpers 
were not present and ready to make the oath. On 
the other hand the oath, like all archaic forms of 
proof, was conclusive when once duly carried 
through. Hence it was almost always an advan- 
tage to be called upon to make the oath of proof, 
and this usually belonged to the defendant. " Gain- 
saying is ever stronger than affirming . . . Own- 
ing is nearer to him who has the thing than to 
him who claims." 1 Our modern phrase " burden 
of proof" is quite inapplicable to the course of 
justice in Anglo-Saxon courts : the benefit or " pre- 
rogative " of proof, as it is called even in modern 
Scottish books, was eagerly contended for. The 
swearer and his oath-helpers might perjure them- 
selves, but if they did there was no remedy for 
the loser in this world, unless he was prepared to 
charge the court itself with giving false judg- 
ment. Obviously there was no room in such a 
scheme for what we now call rules of evidence. 
Rules there were, but they declared what number 
of oath-helpers was required, or how many common 
men's oaths would balance a thegn's. In the 
absence of manifest facts, such as a fresh wound, 
which could be shown to the court, an oath called 

1 SEthelr, ii. 9. 

2 1 6 King Alfred 

the " fore-oath " was required of the complainant 
in the first instance as a security against frivolous 
suits. This was quite different from the final oath 
of proof. 

Oath being the normal mode of proof in disputes 
about property, we find it supplemented by ordeal 
in criminal accusations. A man of good repute 
could usually clear himself by oath ; but circum- 
stances of grave suspicion in the particular case, or 
previous bad character, would drive the defendant 
to stand his trial by ordeal. In the usual forms of 
which we read in England the tests were sinking 
or floating in cold water, 1 and recovery within a 
limited time from the effects of plunging the arm 
into boiling water or handling red-hot iron. The 
hot-water ordeal at any rate was in use from an 
early time, though the extant forms of ritual, after 
the Church had assumed the direction of the pro- 
ceedings, are comparatively late. Originally, no 
doubt, the appeal was to the god of water or fire, 
as the case might be. The Church objected, 
temporised, hallowed the obstinate heathen customs 
by the addition of Christian ceremonies, and 
finally, but not until the thirteenth century, was 
strong enough to banish them. As a man was 
not put to the ordeal unless he was disqualified 

1 There is a curious French variant of the cold-water ordeal in which not 
the accused person, but some bystander taken at random, is immersed : I du 
not know of any English example. 

English Law before Norman Conquest 2 1 7 

from clearing himself by oath for one of the reasons 
above mentioned, the results were probably less 
remote from rough justice than we should expect, 
and it seems that the proportion of acquittals was 
also larger. Certainly people generally believed to 
be guilty did often escape, how far accidentally or 
otherwise we can only conjecture. 1 Another form 
of ordeal favoured in many Germanic tribes from 
early times, notwithstanding protest from the 
Church, and in use for deciding every kind of dis- 
pute, was trial by battle : but this makes its first 
appearance in England and Scotland not as a Saxon 
but as a distinctly Norman institution. 2 It is hard 
to say why, but the fact is so. It seems from 
Anglo-Norman evidence that a party to a dispute 
which we should now call purely civil sometimes 
offered to prove his case not only by oath or com- 
bat, but by ordeal, as the court might award. This 
again suggests various explanations of which none 
is certain. 3 

Inasmuch as all the early modes of proof in- 
volved large elements of unknown risk, it was 

1 The cold-water ordeal was apparently most feared ; see the case of 
Ailward, Materials for Hist. St. Thomas, i. 156, ii. 172 5 Bigelow, Plac. A.-N. 
260. For a full account, see Lea, Superstition and Force. 

1 See more in Neilson, Trial by Qjmlat, an excellent and most interesting 

3 Cases from D. B. collected in Bigelow, Plac. yf.-A''. 40-44, 61. Even 
under Henry II. we find, in terms, such an offer, but it looks, in the light 
of the context, more like a rhetorical asseveration in fact the modern " j'en 
mettrais ma main au feu " than anything else : op. cit. 196. 

2 1 8 King Alfred 

rather common for the parties to compromise at 
the last moment. Also, since there were no ready 
means of enforcing the performance of a judgment 
on unwilling parties, great men supported by 
numerous followers could often defy the court, and 
this naturally made it undesirable to carry matters 
to extremity which, if both parties were strong, 
might mean private war. Most early forms of 
jurisdiction, indeed, of which we have any know- 
ledge, seem better fitted to put pressure on the 
litigants to agree than to produce an effective judg- 
ment of compulsory force. Assuredly this was the 
case with those which we find in England even 
after the consolidation of the kingdom under the 
Danish dynasty. 

Rigid and cumbrous as Anglo-Saxon justice was 
in the things it did provide for, it was, to modern 
eyes, strangely defective in its lack of executive 
power. Among the most important functions of 
courts as we know them is compelling the attend- 
ance of parties and enforcing the fulfilment both of 
final judgments and of interlocutory orders dealing 
with the conduct of proceedings and the like. 
Such things are done as of course under the ordinary 
authority of the court, and with means constantly 
at its disposal ; open resistance to judicial orders 
is so plainly useless that it is seldom attempted, and 
obstinate preference of penalties to submission, a 
thing which now and then happens, is counted a 

English Law before Norman Conquest 219 

mark of eccentricity bordering on unsoundness of 
mind. Exceptional difficulties, when they occur, 
indicate an abnormal state of the commonwealth or 
some of its members. But this reign of law did 
not come by nature ; it has been slowly and 
laboriously won. Jurisdiction began, it seems, 
with being merely voluntary, derived not from the 
authority of the State but from the consent of the 
parties. People might come to the court for a 
decision if they agreed to do so. They were 
bound in honour to accept the result ; they might 
forfeit pledges deposited with the court, or put 
their neighbours who had become sureties in an 
awkward position ; but the court could not compel 
their obedience any more than a tribunal of 
arbitration appointed at this day under a treaty 
between sovereign States can compel the rulers of 
those States to fulfil its award. Anglo-Saxon courts 
had got beyond this most early stage, but not very 
far beyond it. 

The only way to bring an unwilling adversary 
before the court was to take something of his as 
security till he would attend to the demand ; and 
practically the only things that could be taken 
without personal violence were cattle. Distress in 
this form was practised and also regulated from a 
very early time. It was forbidden to distrain until 
right had been formally demanded in Cnut's time 
to the exten_of three summonings and refused. 

220 King Alfred 

Thus leave of the court was required, but the 
party had to act for himself as best he could. If 
distress failed to make the defendant appear, the 
only resource left was to deny the law's protection 
to the stiff-necked man who would not come to be 
judged by law. He might be outlawed, and this 
must have been enough to coerce most men who 
had anything to lose and were not strong enough 
to live in rebellion ; but still no right could be 
done to the complainant without his submission. 
The device of a judgment by default, which is 
familiar enough to us, was unknown, and probably 
would not have been understood. An elaborate 
system of never trusting one man without two or 
more sureties (to describe it roughly) was used to 
supplement these defects, and we may suppose it 
to have been more or less effective, though clumsy 
and tedious. 

Final judgment, when obtained, could in like 
manner not be directly enforced. The successful 
party had to see to gathering the " fruits of judg- 
ment," as we say, for himself. In case of con- 
tinued refusal to do right according to the sentence 
of the court, he might take the law into his own 
hands, in fact wage war on his obstinate 
opponent. The ealdorman's aid, and ultimately 
the king's, could be invoked in such extreme cases 
as that of a wealthy man, or one backed by a 
powerful family, setting the law at open defiance. 

English Law before Norman Conquest 221 

But this was an extraordinary measure, analogous 
to nothing in the regular modern process of law. 

The details of Anglo-Saxon procedure and 
judicial usage had become or were fast becoming 
obsolete in the thirteenth century, which is as 
much as to say that they were already outworn 
when the definite growth of the Common Law 
began. But the general features of the earlier 
practice, and still more the ideas that underlay 
them, have to be borne in mind. They left their 
stamp on the course of our legal history in mani- 
fold ways ; many things in the medieval law 
cannot be understood without reference to them ; 
and even in modern law their traces are often to 
be found. 

While the customary forms of judgment and 
justice were such as we have said, there was a 
comparatively large amount of legislation or at 
least express declaration of law ; and, what is even 
more remarkable, it was delivered in the mother 
tongue of the people from the first. ^Ethelberht, 
the converted king of Kent, was anxious to emulate 
the civilisation of Rome in secular things also, and 
reduced the customs of his kingdom, so far as 
might be, to writing ; but they were called dooms, 
not leges ; they were issued in English, and were 
translated into Latin only after the lapse of some 
centuries. Other Kentish princes, and afterwards 
Ine of Wessex, followed the example ; but the 

222 King Alfred 

regular series of Anglo-Saxon laws begins towards 
the end of the ninth century with Alfred's publica- 
tion of his own dooms, and (it seems) an amended 
version of Ine's, in which these are now preserved. 
Through the century and a half between Alfred's 
time and Cnut's x legislation was pretty continuous, 
and it was always in English. The later restora- 
tion of English to the statute roll after the medieval 
reign of Latin and French was not the new thing 
it seemed. It may be that the activity of the 
Wessex princes in legislation was connected with 
the conquest of the Western parts of England, 
and the need of having fixed rules for the conduct 
of affairs in the newly settled districts. No one 
doubts that a considerable West-Welsh population 
remained in this region, and it would have been 
difficult to apply any local West-Saxon custom to 

Like all written laws, the Anglo-Saxon dooms 
have to be interpreted in the light of their circum- 
stances. Unluckily for modern students, the 
matters of habit and custom which they naturally 
take for granted are those of which we now have 
least direct evidence. A large part of them is 
filled by minute catalogues of the fines and com- 

1 The so-called laws of Edward the Confessor, an antiquarian compilation 
of the twelfth century largely mixed with invention, do not even profess to 
be actual dooms of the Confessor, but the customs of his time collected by 
order of William the Conqueror. 

English Law before Norman Conquest 223 

positions payable for manslaughter, wounding, and 
other acts of violence. We may well suppose that 
in matters of sums and number such provisions 
often express an authoritative compromise between 
the varying though not widely dissimilar usages of 
local courts ; at all events we have an undoubted 
example of a like process in the fixing of standard 
measures after the Conquest ; and in some of the 
later Anglo-Saxon laws we get a comparative 
standard of Danish and English reckoning. Other- 
wise we cannot certainly tell how much is declara- 
tion of existing custom, or what we should now 
call consolidation, and how much was new. We 
know from Alfred's preamble to his laws, evidently 
framed with special care, that he did innovate to 
some extent, but, like a true father of English 
statesmen, was anxious to innovate cautiously. 
On the whole the Anglo-Saxon written laws, 
though of priceless use to students of the times, 
need a good deal of circumspection and careful 
comparison of other authorities for using them 
aright. It is altogether misleading to speak of 
them as codes, or as if they were intended to be a 
complete exposition of the customary law. 

We pass on to the substance of Anglo-Saxon 
law, so far as capable of being dealt with in a 
summary view. There were sharp distinctions 
between different conditions of persons, noble, free, 
and slave. We may talk of " serfs " if we like, 

224 King Alfred 

but the Anglo-Saxon " theow " was much more 
like a Roman slave than a medieval villein. Not 
only slaves could be bought and sold, but there 
was so much regular slave-trading that selling men 
beyond seas had to be specially forbidden. Slaves 
were more harshly punished than free men, and 
must have been largely at their owner's mercy, 
though there is reason to think that usage had a 
more advanced standard of humanity than was 
afforded by any positive rules. Manumission was 
not uncommon, and was specially favoured by the 
Church. The slave had opportunities (perhaps 
first secured under Alfred) for acquiring means of 
his own, and sometimes bought his freedom. 

Among free men there were two kinds of 
difference. A man might be a lord having 
dependents, protecting them and in turn sup- 
ported by them, and answerable in some measure 
for their conduct ; or he might be a free man of 
small estate dependent on a lord. In the tenth 
century, if not before, every man who was not a 
lord himself was bound to have a lord on pain of 
being treated as unworthy of a free man's rights ; 
" lordless man " was to Anglo-Saxon ears much 
the same as " rogue and vagabond " to ours. This 
wide-spread relation of lord and man was one of 
the elements that in due time went to make up 
feudalism. It was not necessarily associated with 
any holding of land by the man from the lord, but 

English Law before Norman Conquest 225 

the association was doubtless already common a 
long time before the Conquest, and there is every 
reason to think that the legally uniform class of 
dependent free men included many varieties of 
wealth and prosperity. Many were probably no 
worse off than substantial farmers, and many not 
much better than slaves. 

The other legal difference between free men 
was their estimation for wergild, the " man's price " 
which a man's kinsfolk were entitled to demand 
from his slayer, and which sometimes he might 
have to pay for his own offences; and this was 
the more important because the weight of a man's 
oath also varied with it. A thegn (which would 
be more closely represented by " gentilhomme " 
than by " nobleman ") had a wergild six times as 
great as a ceorTs l or common man's, and his oath 
counted for six common oaths before the court. 2 
All free men, noble or simple, looked to their 
kindred as their natural helpers and avengers ; and 
one chief office of early criminal law was to 
regulate the blood-feud until there was a power 
strong enough to supersede it. 

We collect from the general tenor of the Anglo- 

1 The modern forms of these words, thane and churl, have passed through 
so much change of meaning and application that they cannot be safely used 
for historical purposes. 

' 2 There were minor distinctions between ranks of free men which are now 
obscure, and were probably no less obscure in the thirteenth century : they 
seem to have been disregarded very soon after the Conquest. 


226 King Alfred 

Saxon laws that the evils most frequently calling 
for remedy were manslaying, wounding, and cattle- 
stealing ; it is obvious enough that the latter, 
when followed by pursuit in hot blood, was a natural 
and prolific source of the two former. The rules 
dealing with such wrongs or crimes (for archaic 
laws draw no firm line between public offence and 
private injury) present a strange contrast of crude 
ideas and minute specification, as it appears at first 
sight. Both are however really due to similar 
conditions. A society which is incapable of re- 
fined conceptions, but is advanced enough to 
require equal rules of some kind and to limit the 
ordinary power of its rulers, is likewise incapable 
of leaving any play for judicial discretion. Anglo- 
Saxon courts had not the means of apportioning 
punishment to guilt in the particular case, or assess- 
ing compensation according to the actual damage, 
any more than of deciding on the merits of con- 
flicting claims according to the evidence. Thus 
the only way remaining open was to fix an 
equivalent in money or in kind for each par- 
ticular injury : so much for life and so much 
for every limb and member of the human body. 
The same thing occurs with even greater pro- 
fusion of detail in the other Germanic com- 
pilations of the Dark Ages. In the latter days 
of Anglo-Saxon monarchy treason was added to 
the rude catalogue of crimes, under continental 

English Law before Norman Conquest 227 

influence ultimately derived from Roman Jaw ; but 
the sin of plotting against the sovereign was the 
more readily conceived as heinous above all others 
by reason of the ancient Germanic principle of 
faith between a lord and his men. This promi- 
nence of the personal relation explains why down to 
quite modern times the murder of a husband by 
his wife, of a master by his servant, and of an ecclesi- 
astical superior by a clerk, secular or regular, owing 
him obedience, were specially classed as " petit 
treason" and distinguished from murder in general. 1 
Secret murder as opposed to open slaying was 
treated with special severity. This throws no light 
on our later criminal law ; nor has it much to do 
with love of a fair fight, though this may have 
strengthened the feeling ; rather it goes back to a 
time when witchcraft, and poisoning as presumably 
connected therewith, were believed to be unavoid- 
able by ordinary caution, and regarded with a 
supernatural horror which is still easy to observe 
among barbarous people. With these exceptions, 
and a few later ones of offences reserved for the 
king's jurisdiction, crimes were not classified or 
distinguished in Anglo-Saxon custom save by the 
amount of public fine 2 and private composition 

1 Blackstone, Com. iv. 203. 

2 Wite was probably, in its origin, rather a fee to the court for arranging 
the composition than a punishment. But it is treated as penal from the 
earliest period of written laws. In the tenth century it could mean pain or 
torment ; see C. D. 1222 ad Jin. 

228 King Alfred 

required to redeem the wrong-doer's life in each 
case. Capital punishment and money payment, 
or rather liability to the blood-feud redeemable by 
money payment, and slavery for a thief who could 
not make the proper fine, were the only means of 
compulsion generally applicable, though false accusers 
and some other infamous persons were liable to cor- 
poral penalties. Imprisonment is not heard of as a 
substantive punishment ; and it is needless to say 
that nothing like a system of penal discipline was 
known. We cannot doubt that a large number of 
offences, even notorious ones, went unpunished. 
The more skilled and subtle attacks on property, 
such as forgery and allied kinds of fraud, did not 
occur, not because men were more honest, but 
because fraudulent documents could not be in- 
vented or employed in a society which knew 
nothing of credit and did not use writing for any 
common business of life. 

Far more significant for the future development 
of English law are the beginnings of the King's 
Peace. In later times this became a synonym for 
public order maintained by the king's general 
authority ; nowadays we do not easily conceive 
how the peace which lawful men ought to keep 
can be any other than the Queen's or the common- 
wealth's. But the king's justice, as we have seen, 
was at first not ordinary but exceptional, and his 
power was called to aid only when other means 

TLnglish Law before Norman Conquest 229 

had failed. To be in the king's peace was to have 
a special protection, a local or personal privilege. 
Every free man was entitled to peace in his own 
house, the sanctity of the homestead being one of 
the most ancient and general principles of Teu- 
tonic law. The worth set on a man's peace, like 
that of his life, varied with his rank, and thus the 
king's peace was higher than any other man's. 
Fighting in the king's house was a capital offence 
from an early time. Gradually the privileges of 
the king's house were extended to the precincts of 
his court, to the army, to the regular meetings of 
the shire and hundred, and to the great roads. 
Also the king might grant special personal pro- 
tection to his officers and followers ; and these two 
kinds of privilege spread until they coalesced and 
covered the whole ground. The more serious 
public offences were appropriated to the king's 
jurisdiction ; the king's peace was used as a special 
sanction for the settlement of blood-feuds, and was 
proclaimed on various solemn occasions ; it seems 
to have been specially prominent may we say as 
a " frontier regulation " ? where English conquest 
and settlement were recent. 1 In the generation 
before the Conquest it was, to all appearance, ex- 
tending fast. In this kind of development the first 
stage is a really exceptional right ; the second is a 
right which has to be distinctly claimed, but is open 

1 See the customs of Chester, D. B. i. 262 b, extracted in Stubbs, Sel. Ch. 

230 King Alfred 

to all who will claim it in the proper form ; the 
third is the " common right " which the courts will 
take for granted. The Normans found the king's 
peace nearing, if not touching, the second stage. 

Except for a few peculiar provisions, there is 
nothing in Anglo-Saxon customs resembling our 
modern distinctions between wilful, negligent, and 
purely accidental injuries. Private vengeance does 
not stop to discriminate in such matters, and cus- 
tomary law which started from making terms with 
the avenger could not afford to take a more judicial 
view. This old harshness of the Germanic rules 
has left its traces in the Common Law down to 
quite recent times. A special provision in Alfred's 
laws recommends a man carrying a spear on his 
shoulder to keep the point level with the butt ; if 
another runs on the point so carried, only simple 
compensation at most 1 will be payable. If the 
point has been borne higher (so that it would 
naturally come in a man's face), this carelessness 
may put the party to his oath to avoid a fine. If 
a dog worried or killed any one, the owner was 
answerable in a scale of fines rising after the first 
offence ; - the indulgence of the modern law which 
requires knowledge of the dog's habits was un- 
known. But it may be doubted whether these 

1 ./Elf. 36. The statement is rather obscure. One is tempted to suppose 
that an accident of that kind had happened to some well-known person at 
the king's court. 

English Law before Norman Conquest 231 

rules applied to anything short of serious injury. 
Alfred's wise men show their practical sense by an 
explanatory caution which they add : the owner 
may not set up as an excuse that the dog forthwith 
ran away and was lost. This might otherwise 
have seemed an excellent defence according to the 
archaic notion that the animal or instrument which 
does damage carries the liability about with it, and 
the owner may free himself by abandoning it (noxa 
caput sequitur}?- 

We have spoken of money payments for con- 
venience ; but it does not seem likely that enough 
money was available, as a rule, to pay the more 
substantial wergilds and fines ; and it must once 
have been the common practice for the pacified 
avenger to accept cattle, arms, or valuable orna- 
ments, at a price agreed between the parties or 
settled by the court. The alternative of delivering 
cattle is expressly mentioned in some of the earlier 

As for the law of property, it was rudimentary, 
and inextricably mixed up with precautions against 
theft and charges of theft. A prudent buyer of 
cattle had to secure himself against the possible 
claim of some former owner who might allege that 
the beasts had been stolen. The only way to do 
this was to take every step in public and with good 
witness. If he set out on a journey to a fair, he 

1 See Holmes, The Common Law, 7-12. 

232 King Alfred 

would let his neighbours know it. When he did 
business either far or near, he would buy only in 
open market and before credible persons, and, if 
the sale were at any distance from home, still more 
if he had done some trade on the way without 
having set out for the purpose, he would call the 
good men of his own township to witness when he 
came back driving his newly-gotten oxen, and not 
till then would he turn them out on the common 
pasture. These observances, probably approved 
by long-standing custom, are prescribed in a whole 
series of ordinances on pain of stringent forfeitures. 1 
Even then a purchaser whose title was challenged 
had to produce his seller, or, if he could not do 
that, clear himself by oath. The seller might pro- 
duce in turn the man from whom he had bought, 
and he again might do the like ; but this process 
(" vouching to warranty " in the language of later 
medieval law) could not be carried more than three 
steps back, to the " fourth hand " including the 
buyer himself. All this has nothing to do with 
the proof of the contract in case of a dispute be- 
tween the original parties to the sale ; it is much 
more aimed at collusion between them, in fact at 
arrangements for the receipt and disposal of stolen 
goods. The witnesses to the sale are there not for 
the parties' sake, but as a check in the public 
interest. We are tempted at first sight to think 

1 See especially Edg. iv. 6-n. 

English Law before Norman Conquest 233 

of various modern enactments that require signa- 
ture or other formalities as a condition of particular 
kinds of contracts being enforceable ; but their 
provisions belong to a wholly different category. 

Another archaic source of anxiety is that 
borrowed arms may be used in a fatal fight and 
bring the lender into trouble. The early notion 
would be that a weapon used for manslaying should 
bring home the liability with it to the owner, quite 
regardless of any fault ; which would afterwards 
become a more or less rational presumption that 
he lent it for no good purpose. Then the risk of 
such weapons being forfeited continued even to 
modern times. Hence the armourer who takes 
a sword or spear to be repaired, and even a smith 
who takes charge of tools, must warrant their 
return free from blood-guiltiness, unless it has been 
agreed to the contrary. 1 We also find, with re- 
gard to the forfeiture of things which " move to 
death," that even in case of pure accident, such as 
a tree falling on a woodman, the kindred still have 
their rights. They may take away the tree if they 
will come for it within thirty days. 2 

There was not any law of contract at all, as we 
now understand it. The two principal kinds of 
transaction requiring the exchange or acceptance 
of promises to be performed in the future were 
marriage and the payment of wergild. Apart from 

1 JElf. 19. 2 ^Elf. 13. 

234 King Alfred 

the general sanctions of the Church, and the king's 
special authority where his peace had been declared, 
the only ways of adding any definite security to a 
promise were oath and giving of pledges. One or 
both of these were doubtless regularly used on 
solemn occasions like the settlement of a blood- 
feud ; and we may guess that the oath, which at 
all events carried a spiritual sanction, was freely 
resorted to for various purposes. But business had 
hardly got beyond delivery against ready money 
between parties both present, and there was not 
much room for such confidence as that on which, 
for example, the existence of modern banking 
rests. How far the popular law took any notice 
of petty trading disputes, such as there were, we 
are not informed ; it seems likely that for the most 
part they were left to be settled by special customs 
of traders, and possibly by special local tribunals 
in towns and markets. Merchants trafficking be- 
yond seas, in any case, must have relied on the 
customs of their trade and order rather than the 
cumbrous formal justice of the time. 

Anglo-Saxon landholding has been much dis- 
cussed, but is still imperfectly understood, and our 
knowledge of it, so far from throwing any light 
on the later law, depends largely on what can be 
inferred from Anglo-Norman sources. It is 
certain that there were a considerable number of 
independent free men holding land of various 

English Law before Norman Conquest 235 

amounts down to the time of the Conquest. In 
the eastern counties some such holdings, un- 
doubtedly free, were very small indeed. 1 But 
many of the lesser free men were in practical sub- 
jection to a lord who was entitled to receive dues 
and services from them ; he got a share of their 
labour in tilling his land, rents in money and kind, 
and so forth. In short they were already in much 
the same position as those who were called villeins 
in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Also 
some poor free men seem to have hired themselves 
out to work for others from an early time. 2 We 
know next to nothing of the rules under which 
free men, whether of greater or lesser substance, 
held " folk-land," that is, estates governed by the 
old customary law. Probably there was not much 
buying and selling of such land. There is no 
reason to suppose that alienation was easier than in 
other archaic societies, and some local customs 
found surviving long after the Conquest point to 
the conclusion that often the consent of the village 
as well as of the family was a necessary condition 
of a sale. Indeed it is not certain that folk-land, 
generally speaking, could be sold at all. There is 
equally no reason to think that ordinary free land- 
holders could dispose of their land by will, or 
were in the habit of making wills for any purpose. 

1 Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond, 1 06. 
2 M\f. 43. 

236 King Alfred 

Anglo-Saxon wills (or rather documents more 
like a modern will than a modern deed) exist, but 
they are the wills of great folk, such as were 
accustomed to witness the king's charters, had 
their own wills witnessed or confirmed by bishops 
and kings, and held charters of their own ; and it 
is by no means clear that the lands dealt with in 
these wills were held as ordinary folk-land. In 
some cases it looks as if a special licence or consent 
had been required ; we also hear of persistent 
attempts by the heirs to dispute even gifts to great 
churches. 1 

Soon after the conversion of the south of 
England to Christianity, English kings began to 
grant the lordship and revenues of lands, often of 
extensive districts, to the Church, or more accu- 
rately speaking to churches, by written charters 
framed in imitation of continental models. Land 
held under these grants by charter or " book," 
which in course of time acquired set forms and 
characters peculiar to England, was called bookland, 
and the king's bounty in this kind was in course of 
time extended to his lay magnates. The same 
extraordinary power of the king, exercised with the 
witness and advice 2 of his Witan, which could con- 
fer a title to princely revenues, could also confer 

1 See C. D. 226 compared with 256. 

2 A strictly accurate statement in few words is hardly possible. See the 
section " Book-land and Folk-land " in Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond, 
p. 244 sqq. 

JLnglish Law before Norman Conquest 237 

large disposing capacities unknown to the customary 
law ; thus the fortunate holder of bookland might 
be and often was entitled not only to make a grant 
in his lifetime or to let it on such terms as he 
chose, but also to leave it by will. My own 
belief is that the land given by the Anglo-Saxon 
wills which are preserved was almost always book- 
land even when it is not so described. Indeed 
these wills are rather in the nature of postponed 
grants, as in Scotland a "trust disposition " had 
to be till quite lately, than of a true last will and 
testament as we now understand it. They certainly 
had nothing to do with the Roman testament. 

Long before the Conquest it had become the 
ambition of every man of substance to hold book- 
land, and we may well think that this was on the 
way to become the normal form of land-ownership. 
But this process, whatever its results might have 
been, was broken off by the advent of Norman 
lords and Norman clerks with their own different 
set of ideas and forms. 

The various customs of inheritance that are to 
be found even to this day in English copyholds, 
and to a limited extent in freehold land, and which 
are certainly of great antiquity, bear sufficient 
witness that at least as much variety was to be 
found before the Conquest. Probably the least 
usual of the typical customs was primogeniture ; 
preference of the youngest son, ultimogeniture or 

238 King Alfred 

junior-right as recent authors have called it, the 
" borough-English " of our post-Norman books, 
was common in some parts ; preference of the 
youngest daughter, in default of sons, or even of 
the youngest among collateral heirs, was not un- 
known. But the prevailing type was equal divi- 
sion among sons, not among children including 
daughters on an equal footing as modern systems 
have it. Here again the effect of the Norman 
Conquest was to arrest or divert the native lines of 
growth. In this country we now live under laws 
of succession derived in part from the military 
needs of Western Europe in the early Middle 
Ages, and in part from the cosmopolitan legislation 
of Justinian, the line between the application of 
the two systems being drawn in a manner which 
is accounted for by the peculiar history of our 
institutions and the relations between different 
jurisdictions in England, but cannot be explained 
on any rational principle. But the unlimited 
freedom of disposal by will which we enjoy under 
our modern law has reduced the anomalies of our 
intestate succession to a matter of only occasional 

Small indeed, it is easy to perceive, is the portion 
of Anglo-Saxon customs which can be said to have 
survived in a recognisable form. This fact never- 
theless remains compatible with a perfectly real and 
living continuity of spirit in our legal institutions. 

English Law before Norman Conquest 239 

If we do not nowadays observe King Alfred's 
dooms, or anything like them, still we owe it to 
the work of Alfred and his children that England 
was saved to become an individual nation, and that 
our fundamental ideas of justice have survived all 
external changes. Those ideas may be summed up 
very shortly. Justice is essentially public ; the 
business of parties is to conduct their cases accord- 
ing to the rules of law, the business of the court 
is to hear and determine between them, not to 
conduct an inquiry ; judicial interpretation of the 
law is the only authentic and binding interpretation, 
and in particular the executive has no such power. 
These principles appear obvious to most of us, but 
there are many civilised countries where they are 
not admitted. We can trace them back to the 
rudest beginnings of our jurisprudence ; they are 
as vigorous as ever, in all the complexity of modern 
affairs, wherever the English tongue is spoken. 





HE story of the life of King Alfred 
connects his name with the practice 
of three arts. He was an architect, 
a writer, and a musician. We so often 
hear of the art of war that when we remember his 
proficiency as a soldier we are inclined to forget 
that fortification, fighting, fishing, and hunting, if 
they may be called arts, are not fine arts. Alfred's 
noble defence of England against the Danes has 
ever since his day been an example to his country- 
men of later generations. He first taught them 
the negative virtue that consists in not knowing 
when they are beaten. But our concern, in the 
particular chapter that has fallen to my lot, is with 
Alfred and the fine arts : and as you cannot 
enjoy painting or music without a house, it be- 
hoves us to inquire first as to the state of archi- 
tecture in the ninth century, and as to the part taken 
by Alfred in building houses, churches, and cities. 
We must remember that though, as we know, 
writing and the illumination of manuscripts had 

244 King Alfred 

attained a very high pitch of excellence, Alfred had 
no maps to guide him. His workmen may have 
been able to scratch their diagrams on stones, and 
in other similar ways to obtain guidance in carrying 
out such buildings as the king required. But he 
had traversed all that part of England over which 
he reigned, and was as well acquainted with the 
marshes of Somerset as with the wooded valley of 
the Lea and the chalk cliffs of his southern shore. 
He knew how to build and how to handle the 
ships of his time, and was able to defeat the Danes 
on what might be called their own element. 
Tradition has always and plausibly assigned to him 
a further feat of naval warfare. When his enemies 
had sailed up to Hertford and prepared to rest for 
the winter and mend their boats, he, so to speak, 
drew the water from under them by the knowledge 
which prompted him to divide the channels. The 
object of this and other achievements of the kind 
was his anxiety to obtain the command of the 
great estuary into which the Fleet, the Wallbrook, 
the Lea, and the creeks about Barking fell. To 
gain this region was one thing, to hold it another. 
The Saxons before his time disliked the use of 
walls in warfare. Still more they disliked the 
trouble of building and maintaining them. But 
Alfred possessed whatever was known of fortification, 
and by this knowledge he was able to raise the first 
permanent impediment in the way of future invaders. 

And the Arts 245 

The best authorities agree that to Alfred rather 
than to the Romans must be ascribed the founda- 
tion of London as it was during the Middle Ages, 
and as, in a sense, it is still. Stow, as far back as 
the reign of Queen Elizabeth, citing some long- 
lost document or tradition, tells us that Alfred 
found London empty. He, to use a very modern 
expression, " restored " the walls. He rebuilt- 
them with the material at hand, namely, the 
material with which another Saxon king had built 
the church of St. Alban. The Saxons had dis- 
dained to fight behind walls in their conquest of 
the degenerate and Romanised Britons. But the 
Danes were as fighting men equal to the Saxons. 
Some advantage was needed before the Saxons 
could overcome their formidable invaders. He 
saw two important points to be gained by the 
restoration of London : first, that his new city 
would be virtually impregnable by the Danes ; 
secondly, that the situation would be that from 
which he could best defend the whole valley of 
the Thames. As the Thames rises in Gloucester- 
shire, and runs thence to Essex and Kent, this 
was to defend all his English dominions. We say 
now that to hold the Nile is to hold all Egypt and 
much more. In those days, when the river was 
the chief highway, to protect the Thames was to 
protect Kent, Wessex, and Mercia. I have men- 
tioned hunting as an art. Alfred had an eye for a 

246 King Alfred 

hunting country, as we say now. London was 
seen by him as we see Pevensey, a ruined wall 
enclosing nothing. There may have been vestiges 
of a church. There may have been the piers of a 
bridge. There can have been little else. Alfred 
made the bridge into a fortress, renewing the great 
timbers which had connected the piers. The 
bridge stood a long way farther down the stream 
than the modern London Bridge, and to defend it 
the king built a tower at the south-east corner of 
the restored wall. William the Conqueror, like 
Alfred, saw the advantages of the site, and here he 
placed the tower which still stands, a relic of his 
reign, a reminiscence of that of his great predecessor. 
The Roman roads through the city, and the gates 
by which they made their exit, no longer existed, 
or, at best, were ruined and useless. He made 
one road diagonally from the bridge across his 
market-place to Westgate, which we know as 
Newgate. A second road led to what we still call 
Bishopsgate, some distance westward from the site 
of a Roman gate which opened on the old roads 
to Lincoln and into Essex. His corn-market, where 
there was a weighing-stone for wheat, stood to the 
west of the Market Place or Cheap. A road along the 
northern side of the Cheap was in existence so soon 
after Alfred's time that it must have been planned 
if it was not made by him. We call it Cheapside, 
and here there are traditions of a king's palace 

And the Arts 247 

near the spot where, centuries later, the great 
men of the city began to assemble in their 

We have mentioned Alfred's wall. His out- 
line, we may be sure, was speedily filled up. St. 
Paul's Church rose among the wooden and brick 
houses. Civic institutions began to show them- 
selves where there was security ; and Alfred's 
brother-in-law, Burgred, the last King of Mercia, 
had a house in Coleman Street, and gave the 
cabbage garden to the Bishop of Worcester. 
Alfred's daughter, ^thelflaed, married ^Ethelred, 
Burgred's successor, who was called the Alderman 
of the Mercians. To him, and after his death to 
his widow, the king committed the charge and 
governance of the city, and ^Ethelbert became the 
first alderman of London. The importance of the 
place is apparent. It was the easternmost bulwark 
of Alfred's kingdom against the settled Danes of 
East Anglia, as well as against the fresh incursions 
of pirates and filibusters from over the sea. Alfred's 
prescience is proved by one single fact. From 
that day to this London has never been taken 
by force of arms. The Danes from the North 
Sea never got past the Tower the Danes from 
the Danelaw never broke through the wall. 

With regard to ecclesiastical architecture in 
Alfred's time we know very little ; with regard to 
civil architecture scarcely anything. The church 

248 King Alfred 

of St. Lawrence, Bradford-on-Avon, is assigned 
by competent judges to as late a date as the ninth 
century ; but Aldhelm, who was Bishop of Sherborn 
near the beginning of the seventh century, founded 
a nunnery at Bradford, which was afterwards 
connected with that of Shaftesbury, and the 
church is mentioned as early as the time of King 
./Ethelred, just a hundred years after the death of 
Alfred. Building-stone of the best kind abounds 
in the neighbourhood, as well as in that of Deer- 
hurst, near Tewkesbury. The stone masonry 
suggests that wooden buildings set the pattern in 
both places : while, from the ease with which St. 
Paul's in London was burnt, both before and after 
the Norman Conquest, we may be sure it contained 
very little brickwork. Deerhurst was built in 
1053, so we must not look to it as an example of 
the architecture of Alfred's time. At Wing, near 
Aylesbury, the chancel is Saxon, and not unlike St. 
Lawrence's chapel in its peculiar flat panelling. It 
is very lofty, but less narrow in proportion than 
Bradford, and has a series of very interesting vaulted 
crypts, in which we see a good many thin bricks of 
the kind usually ascribed to the Romans, fragments 
perhaps of a Roman fortress or a villa at that 
place. Several towers with early Saxon features 
remain, but many have lately been destroyed, as at 
St. Albans, Limpsfield, and other places. A few 
fragments of Beda's time may possibly remain 





(Cot Ionian Library) 

And the Arts 249 

in the very ancient church of Jarrow. Saxon 
building with Roman bricks is to be seen at St. 
Martin's, Canterbury, and at Dover, but both 
falsified by injudicious alterations. Where good 
building-stone comes to the surface, as in Northamp- 
tonshire, we find not far apart examples of churches 
and towers which may well have existed at the 
beginning of the tenth century. Barnack and Earls 
Barton may be named, and with them should be 
classed St. Michael's at Oxford, and St. Benedict's 
at Cambridge. Traces of Saxon work are often 
found in old churches, but they can seldom be 
dated in the age of Alfred. It may, in fact, be 
laid down as a rule that where there were no 
fortifications, building was of but a temporary 
character, and where stone did not greatly abound, 
churches were made of wood and were very perish- 
able. In a few places towers were built specially, 
like the Irish round towers, for storage and 
defence. In these cases we usually find great 
height in proportion, and an arrangement of the 
entrance so that it can only be reached by a ladder, 
such as we may still trace in the Tower of London, 
the keep of which had no entrance on the ground 
level before the reign of Henry VIII. Of dwelling- 
houses we see no examples. In London, as much 
as two centuries later, ordinances were made for the 
improvement of town dwellings, but that previously 
this branch of architecture had been sadly neglected 

250 King Alfred 

we may infer from reading that even chimneys 
were usually made of wood. 

We know that castles were built by Alfred, and 
in his time, but in a majority of cases they con- 
sisted only of mounds and stockades, strengthened 
by great beams and balks of timber. To with- 
stand attacks like those of the Danes, sudden and 
usually brief, these defences may have been very 
powerful. At a few places like Tamworth, where 
some supposed Saxon masonry is still pointed out, 
or at Colchester, where, as at London, Roman walls 
were restored, a little building took the place of 
woodwork. Mr. Clark, the best authority about 
Medieval Military Architecture^ says plainly that 
though " the English were from a remote period 
conversant with masonry, and constructed churches 
of stone or timber as suited them best," they 
avoided everything but timber where they made a 
mound or an artificial earthwork of any kind. The 
Norsemen from the mouth of the Elbe were not 
very different from the Danes and the Saxons, 
Jutes and Angles were only earlier immigrants 
from the same regions. It is not possible now to 
distinguish the earthworks thrown up by Alfred 
and his men from those of the Danes which they 
overthrew. One thing only we can recognise as 
his peculiar work, namely, the formation in his 
own mind of clearly devised plans by which, with 
inferior strength, with fewer men and arms, and in 

And the Arts 251 

face of frequent disaster, he was able to consolidate 
his power, to turn even defeat into success, and at 
last, before his early death, both to obtain a time 
of respite for his people and to show them how in 
the future they might always hopefully resist the 
invader. If the Danish attack was for the moment 
overwhelming, it was desultory. The defence 
offered by Alfred was far-seeing, part of a con- 
sistent whole, a scheme which must eventually 

In 876 the pirates attacked Wareham success- 
fully, and thence fell upon Exeter : but in 878 
Alfred made his famous camp in the Somerset 
marshes, and by slow degrees drove them north- 
ward and eastward, established himself in London, 
and fortified it, thence expelling them from 
Gravesend, from Rochester, from Farnham, from 
their great timber fort at Benfleet, until Hasting, 
the Danish leader, in 893, submitted to Alfred and 
was converted and baptized. Finally, in 897 the 
war was over. The Danes had thrown up a 
work " on the Lea, twenty miles from London, 
whereupon JElfred," says Mr. Clark, " threw up 
another work on each bank of that river lower 
down, and diverted the waters through a number 
of shallow courses, thus effectually shutting in the 
Danish ships." From this time to the end of his 
life, a brief period of about four years, Alfred 
devoted himself to the arts of peace. Among 

252 King Alfred 

them he reckoned ship-building and the codifica- 
tion of the laws, but we chiefly remember his love 
of books, his establishment of schools, in which 
writing was practised as a fine art, and his en- 
couragement of skilful work in gold, enamel, and 

Many examples remain to show us that art of 
this last kind, as well as poetry and music, were 
largely and successfully practised among the Anglo- 
Saxons. The great discoveries in grave mounds 
in Kent, of which the results may be seen in the 
Mayer Museum at Liverpool, prove that from 
a very early period there were among the people 
skilful designers and artificers, not only in jewellery, 
but in glass. The well-known ornament preserved 
at Oxford, probably a royal badge, which bears his 
name, is perhaps the most familiar object which 
can be connected with him. We may remember 
of Alfred, as well as of King Edwin of North- 
umbria and of other law-loving monarchs, that 
he hung up gold bracelets by the wayside, and that 
none dared to steal them. Unfortunately for 
another story connecting Alfred with the fine arts, 
it is not older than the twelfth century. The fact 
that such a legend existed shows us what was the 
popular estimate of the king's character. We are 
glad therefore to observe that Freeman finds 
nothing impossible in the story that " Alfred, 
wishing to know what the Danes were about and 

And the Arts 253 

how strong they were, set out one day from Athel- 
ney in the disguise of a minstrel or juggler, and 
went into the Danish camp and stayed there several 
days, amusing the Danes with his playing, till he 
had seen all that he wanted, and then went 
back without any one finding him out." Alfred's 
dealings with the Danes, whether in disguise or 
otherwise, led to the defeat and conversion of 
Guthorm, to the peace of Wedmore, and to two 
incidents in which pictorial art has a place : the 
capture of the Raven standard, and the cutting of 
one of the figures of a horse on the side of the 
chalk downs. There are two such white horses, 
one near Edington, which has been " restored," the 
other near Shrivenham, "which has not been altered 
at all, but is very old and rude, so that you might 
hardly know that it was meant for a horse at all." 

The pretty story of Alfred's youth, as to his 
learning to read, will not, unfortunately, bear 
critical examination. That it should have been 
so long believed and so often told is, however, 
eloquent as to the reputation he acquired as a boy. 
Some have even doubted if he could read, but in 
his journey to Rome he learned Latin at least it 
is more probable that he knew Latin than that he 
was ignorant of it. He was certainly desirous, 
during his scanty leisure from warfare, to further 
the cause of learning by all means in his power. 
His monks at Athelney and his nuns at Shaftes- 

254 King Alfred 

bury were expressly devoted to the labours of the 
scriptorium, and when we observe the number of 
the books which, in spite of the Danes, were pro- 
duced in England in the course of the eighth and 
ninth centuries, we are forced to the conclusion 
that the powers of the time were unanimously in 
favour of the art of writing. We may, indeed, go 
much further than this. After a careful comparison, 
such as may be made in the British Museum, or 
any other great public library, we are forced to the 
conclusion that no country in Europe at that time 
could boast of the production of such beautiful 
books, filled with such skilful writing and illus- 
trated with such exquisite pictures, as England in the 
reign of King Alfred. A well-known manuscript 
(Addl. MSS. 34, 890) produced by the monks of 
Alfred's own monastery at Winchester, or the 
volume of Gospels and other readings written 
without illustrations at Canterbury, cannot be sur- 
passed in all the qualities which we admire in 
manuscripts. Italy itself could do nothing even 
approaching the Psychomachia of Prudentius, prob- 
ably written at Shaftesbury in the ninth century. 
It is filled with figures representing the soul in 
conflict with evil. They are wrongly described as 
" tinted," but the figures and their draperies are 
drawn in two colours, in outline, in a manner 
which would not surprise us on a Greek vase of 
the best period. We admire in a relief by Donatello, 

And the Arts 255 

or a fresco by Giotto, similar art, centuries later. 
Of the same period, or earlier, is a book reciting 
the names of the benefactors of Lindisfarne St. 
Cuthbert was Alfred's special patron in which 
the lettering is partly in black, partly in gold, 
worthy of a Liber Vit<e. In many volumes we 
see such an initial as that which figures in the 
story mentioned above, among them copies of 
Beowulf's or Caedmon's poems, such as might 
very well answer to the book of old songs which 
Alfred's mother was said to have shown him. 
(Cottonian MSS. Vit. A. xv.) 

The famous Eenedictional written for .ZEthel- 
wold, Bishop of Winchester, some fifty years after 
Alfred's time, may be taken to show us to what 
perfection this art was brought. The style is that 
to which the artists of his time were tending. 
Here and there, among older books, we may trace 
features which occur in this sumptuous volume, 
both among the figure -subjects and among the 
ornaments. Sir Digby Wyatt, an excellent judge, 
is enthusiastic on the manuscript, yet fails to 
appreciate the figure-subjects, because they show 
" little classical influence." I am not inclined 
to find fault on that account. The opinion of 
a learned antiquary of the last generation, John 
Gage, should have great weight. He looked upon 
the Eenedictional as the culmination of the art of 
the Anglo-Saxon school ; and John Young Ottley 

256 King Alfred 

expressed himself in equally eulogistic terms about 
the manuscript, which is in the collection of the 
Duke of Devonshire and which was fully described 
and in great part engraved by the Society of Anti- 
quaries in 1832 {Archteologia, vol. xxiv.) Ottley 
points out its chief claim on our admiration thus : 
" You desire from me a few words on the illumina- 
tions in St. jEthelwold's Benedictionary, with my 
opinion of their merits as works of art. I feel 
honoured by the request, and comply with it the 
more willingly as I can honestly say that I think 
them in the highest degree creditable to the taste 
and intelligence of this nation at a period when in 
most parts of Europe the fine arts are commonly 
believed to have been at a very low ebb." Farther 
on, Ottley speaks of " the justness of the general 
proportions of the figures." He especially praises 
some little angels holding scrolls, which, he says, 
" have so much gracefulness and animation, are so 
beautifully draped, and so well adapted in their 
attitudes to the spaces they occupy, that I hardly 
know how to praise them sufficiently." 

The mechanical part of the work should be 
carefully examined. It shows and not it alone, 
but many early books as well that in the time 
of Alfred artists could command the help of 
artificers who knew how to make vellum fit for the 
most delicate painting and writing ; that colours 
were produced worthy of the vellum for which they 

And the Arts 257 

were prepared ; that gold-beating and gilding with 
the leaf had been carried to a perfection never since 
surpassed. Godeman, the monk, afterwards, in 
970, abbot of Thorney, who wrote the book, must 
have been born during the reign of Alfred, or 
soon after, and learned his art from the writers of 
the great king who, in his English translation of 
the Pastoral of Gregory, remarks feelingly on the 
destruction wrought by the Danes, and how before 
their incursions " the churches throughout Britain 
were filled with treasures and books." 


/Estel, the, 192, 195 
Africa, description of, 164 
Alfred regains his kingdom, 17, 

as lawgiver, 22-26 

permanence of his work, 32 

personal appearance of, 33 

as king, 41 

legendary and real, 42, 43 

army, 45 

accession to throne, 46, 133 

visit to Rome, 58, 172 

portrait of a king, 61, 62 

writings of, 63, 64 

life work, 66 

mother of, 71 

parentage, 71, 72 

his youth, 76 

as a musician, Si 

his laborious life, 88-90 

translations of books, 100-104 

religious views, 107 

will of, 1 10, 203 

military tactics, 118 

first campaign, 129 

marriage, 129 

campaigns against Hasting and 
the " Great Army,'' 145-147 

as a geographer, 151 

selection of books for the people, 

minor literary works, 199-202 

as architect, writer, musician, 243 
Anglo-Saxon dooms, 222 

justice, 218 

land-holding, 234-239 

life, 209 

women, 7, 8 

Anglo-Saxons, gods of, 3-5 

manners and customs of, 7-10 
Ashdown, battle of, 1 1 8 

Basing, battle of, 133 

Bede, literary works of, 180 

Bede's History, 198 

Benedictional, 255 

Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, 

30, 178, 183 
extract from Sedgefield edition, 

185, 186 
Britons of Cornwall and Wales, 58, 

Burhs, 142 

Candle-clocks, invention of, 91 
Canute on pilgrimages to Rome, 74 
Capital punishment, 228 
Castles built by Alfred, 250 
Church, Alfred's relation to the, 63 
City of God, Orosius's, 177 
Code of Alfred, 174-176 
Courts of bishops and great men, 212 
Cura Pa star a Us, 179, 180 
translation of, 187 

Danes, Alfred's feelings towards, 83 

baptism of, 85 

first appearance of, 1 1 

second invasion of, 55 

wars of, 15 
Danish Conquest, 15 

invasion, 46-50 
Dialogues of Gregory the Great, 180 

Ealhswith, 129 
Ecclesiastical Laws, 97-99 


King Alfred 

Eddington, battle of, n8 
Edmund the Martyr, 130 
Education of Alfred's children, 87, 

of children, Alfred's views on, 

1 88 

Embassies to foreign parts, 95, 96 
England in Alfred's time, map of, 2 
Ethelred, death of, 133 
EthelwulPs will, 73 
Europe, summary of inhabitants, 154- 


Final judgment in court, 220 
Foreign discoveries, 59, 60 
Fortification of towns, 141, 143 

Gregory the Great, 179 
Gregory's treatise, 105 
Guthrum, King of Danes, 50 
treaty with, 55 

Haddeby, 160 

Hierdeboc, 187-192 

Hyde Abbey, Register of, no 

Income, distribution of, 92 
John the Scot, 108 

Kingdom, settlement of, 54 
King, portrait of, by Alfred, 61, 62 
King's peace, 228 
Kriegs Spiel, 16 

Laws, code of, compiled, 53 
Learning, encouragement of, 60, 

introduced, 90 
Letter to bishops, 189-192 
Life work of Alfred, 66 
Literature fostered by Alfred, 29 
London fortified, 19, 20 

restoration of, 57 

Map of Alfred's England, 2 
Manual, formation of Alfred's, 94 
Military tactics of Alfred, 118 

Monasteries, foundation of, 93, 94 

rebuilt, 26, 27 
Monument to Alfred, reasons for, 36 

Naval forces, state of, 123-125 
Navy, development of, 135, 140 
foundation of, 52 

Oath, in court of law, 214-217 
Oht-here, voyage of, 157-160 
Orosius, Paulus, 152, 177 

Payments for convenience, 225, 231 
Peace of 878, 139 
Pilgrimages to Rome, 75 
Property law, 231, 232 

Religion of the tribes, 3-5 
Religious bequests by Alfred, 112 
Rome, Alfred's connection with, 28 
communication with, 86 

Slaves, freedom of, 113 

of Anglo-Saxons, 223-225 
St. Cuthbert, 1 5 
St. Lawrence, Bradford -on -Avon, 


State of English defences, 119-123 
Stone masonry, 248 

Thegnhood increased, 143, 144 

Viking raids, 125-129, 135-139 
Vikings, invasion of, 55 
Voyages of Oht-here and Wulfstan, 

Walls of London restored by Alfred, 

245, 247 

Wcrgild, payment of, 233 
Will of Alfred, 1 10, 203 

of Ethel wulf, 73 
Witenagemot, 31, 32, 211 
Women of Anglo-Saxons, 7, 8 
Writings of Alfred, 63, 64 
Wulfstan, voyage of, 160, 161 

York, battle of, 128 

Printed by R. & R. CLARK, LIMITED, Edinburgh. 

BowKer, A. 
Alfred the Great